There are some who make writing seem like some sort of magic—they’d have you believe the stories just appear and there’s no telling where they came from. Then there are writers like Rebecca Makkai, who are more like engineers: writers who deeply understand the physics of a story, who know how to break it all down and put it back together and make it even better in the process. I learned this about her back in early 2015 when Brian Turner, the director of the Sierra Nevada College MFA program where I was a student, assigned Rebecca as my second-semester mentor. I’d asked to be placed with her, even though I was a bit intimidated. She had two successful novels and an incredible string of four years of Best American Short Stories selections. And she had a reputation for being a tough mentor, one who didn’t allow for lazy thinking or half-assed work. During that semester, she asked me to take apart stories, piece by piece, to figure out how they work. I wrote massive outlines of stories like “Snakes” by Danielle Evans and broke down every minuscule variation in point of view used in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (following an eight-page, single-spaced list of possible variations of POV Rebecca created), among many other tasks. I applied what I learned in writing exercises describing imaginary cities, writing scenes over and over in different points of view, and outlining and tearing apart my own stories. I expected, when I picked up her newest book, The Great Believers, to enjoy seeing her lessons about structure and character and conflict come to life in her own work. I wish I could point some out in a more than cursory way, but the story of two friends, Yale and Fiona, and the way their lives are rocked by the “slow motion tsunami” of the AIDS epidemic, absorbed all my attention instead. Yale is living through the worst of the epidemic as it crashes ashore in 1985 Chicago, while Fiona deals with the aftermath as she makes her way through 2015 Paris. Along the way, the reader sees the way the tragedy ripples through time, and as Publishers Weekly said in a starred review, Yale and Fiona’s stories create “a powerful, unforgettable meditation, not on death, but rather on the power and gift of life.” Rebecca and I talked via Facebook Messenger over a few hours one evening recently about the work of crafting this novel, about the real lives that motivated her writing, and of the opportunity to draw attention to other voices telling the stories of the AIDS crisis: The Millions: Where did the initial spark for the story come from? Rebecca Makkai: So, this isn't going to make much sense. I was visiting my agent right after I'd turned in my second novel, and she asked if I had an idea for my next book, and I said no. I got into a cab, and somewhere between her place and the train station, I saw this really tall, beautiful woman walking down the street, and I assumed she was a model. So I started thinking about models and about artistic muses, and I had a flash of a woman who had been an artists' model in 1920s Paris. I set out to write about this artists' model, and I wanted to show her at the end of her life, which couldn't be much later than the ’80s. So I started thinking (and this took like a year) about the gallery she'd be in contact with to donate the paintings and sketches she had from that time, and I thought about the development director she'd be in touch with, and I thought about who'd be working at a gallery in the ’80s, and I thought that AIDS might be a small part of the book. It turned out that the AIDS theme stole most of the book's gravity. The art is still there, but now it's only about 5 percent. TM: Many of your stories draw on other art forms in some way, especially fine art and classical music, stories like “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background,” “Cross,” “The Worst You Ever Feel,” and many others. Here, you have Yale trying to obtain that collection from the model. It seems like a lot of your work approaches other art forms, has a sort of conversation with those existing (or sometimes imaginary) artworks. Why do you think that is? How does it help you craft your own work? RM: I’m not exactly sure why I write about artists so much, except that I grew up around a lot of poets and musicians (not so much around visual artists) and I relate to the way they think. I think most people do, really—whether or not we're artists, we're all trying to find or make beauty in the world. It's challenging, actually, to write about pieces of art that don't exist and to describe them so that they seem real. But it's a lot easier to describe them than to actually PAINT them. If I could be a painter or a musician, I would be. But it's satisfying to write about pieces of art and pieces of music and almost imagine that I made them real. TM: In your recent piece in Poets & Writers about writing this novel over a number of artists residencies, you said that including Fiona’s narrative felt at first like a “cowardly move.” What about it felt cowardly? RM: It was more the motivations behind the decision that initially came from a place of worry. This was still really early in the first draft, of course, but I was writing entirely from Yale's (third person) point of view in the ’80s, and it started to feel more and more like ventriloquism, and I was really worried about a narrow story like that feeling appropriative. One possible solution, I realized, was to broaden the story quite a bit, and so Fiona's sections came from that impulse. As soon as I tried it out, though, I knew this is what I should have done from the beginning. The 30 years that elapsed and the way that we could now learn what had happened to people, on top of the second perspective on everything—this was what made the novel really start to work for me. I was only worried for a little while, maybe between my decision to do it and actually executing it, that I was diluting things, or backing away from my real story just because I was nervous. But once I saw the things this move opened up for me, I was thrilled that I'd pushed myself to go broader. TM: I know from your acknowledgements that the concern about ventriloquism and appropriation was on your mind. But what would you say to the people who maybe are concerned that a straight woman is writing about something so deeply personal concerning gay men? And how did you ensure you didn’t cross that line from allyship to appropriation? RM: I really wanted to make sure I could answer two questions satisfactorily for myself. The first was whether I could do this well, and while it's not up to me to decide if I did, I ultimately felt that I could do it well with scads and scads of research, which I undertook over the four years I was working on the book. The second question was whether the success of this book would ultimately amplify or mute other voices on this topic. I have a couple of reasons to believe it's the former. First of all, the way commercial publishing works, presses put their money behind books when they've seen similar books do well. It's not a zero-sum game. The more successful this novel is, the more likely the next person is to get published when they're writing a memoir or novel about AIDS or about LGBTQ history. And I have the chance now to point people toward first person accounts of the crisis and toward other art that came out of it and is still coming out of it. I hope that readers don't stop with my book—that they move on to other accounts and that they move on to advocacy. TM: What are some of those other accounts that you would recommend? RM: So glad you asked! In terms of nonfiction—for those new to the topic, something compendious like David France’s How to Survive a Plague would be a good starting point (I’d recommend that over something like And the Band Played On, which is wonderful but awfully misleading about the origins of the epidemic). When We Rise by Cleve Jones is a great study of activism. I think we tend to know more theater than fiction about AIDS—Angels in America and The Normal Heart, of course, but for theater I’d also recommend Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey, which is strange and wonderful. To pick a few pieces of fiction: Rabih Alameddine’s novel Koolaids: The Art of War is brilliant. There’s a story collection called Monopolies of Loss by the British writer Adam Mars-Jones that deals only partly with AIDS, but it really influenced me. I want to put in a word for M.K. Czerwiec’s graphic memoir Taking Turns, which chronicles her time as an AIDS nurse at Illinois Masonic in Chicago. She was a wonderful resource and early reader for my book, and her book is gut-wrenching. TM: In your research, you spent time talking to people who had lived through the AIDS epidemic, right? I was curious how you approach that sort of conversation. It seems like such a difficult thing to do, to ask someone to talk about this incredibly tragic part of their lives. RM: YES. Yeah, so the thing is, there turns out to be very little in book or film form about the crisis in Chicago, specifically. Everything's about New York and San Francisco. So I ended up having to do a ton of legwork, which was actually a very good thing for the book. First of all, there was a lot of primary source material. I read every back issue of the Windy City Times, Chicago's biggest gay weekly, from 1985 to 1992. And then I met with a lot of people. Doctors, nurses, activists, lawyers, journalists, an art therapist, survivors, people living with HIV. They were incredibly generous with their time and with their stories, and in many cases, they were sharing tremendously emotional things. And in some cases, people were telling me detailed things about their sex lives about five minutes after I'd met them. Some of them told me it was therapeutic to talk to someone who really wanted to know all this stuff. I got so much more out of talking to them than I would have out of reading some book. Their fingerprints are all over the novel. TM: Did you ever feel any sort of tug-of-war between the fiction writer in you who saw all this great material to use and the person who knew these were true stories from people's lives? Did you ever feel like you struggled with fictionalizing elements that might have been based in fact? RM: Yes, definitely. It drives me nuts that there isn't a comprehensive nonfiction account of the AIDS crisis in Chicago, and sometimes I wished I were writing it. There were so many beautiful or heartbreaking or maddening details that I couldn't fit into my book. While people will learn things from story, I believe, its main intention is not educational, and cramming too much in there wouldn't have felt right. I didn't struggle with fictionalizing things—I think that's just the way my brain works—but I did struggle with not being able to include everything. I have hours and hours of taped interviews that I had to stop myself from listening to again when I reached revision, because I knew I'd want to stuff more and more details in there, to the detriment of the broader story. [millions_ad] TM: Paris was attacked in the fall of 2015, while you were writing Fiona's story, also set in Paris in the fall of 2015, so you were forced to reckon with that sudden real-life event in your novel. How did that change the story for you? What did you learn from that experience as a writer? RM: Yeah, I was writing it kind of in real time and then the attacks happened. I could have moved the story, but it would've been hard, and there were a lot of timelines I'd have had to move. Plus moving it later, I'd have had to reckon with the American election, and I felt like moving it earlier wouldn't have worked with the age of Fiona's daughter. So, I decided to just keep the story in 2015 and deal with it. It felt thematically appropriate—the interruption, once again, of public tragedy into someone's private drama—and it was something to shake Fiona out of her 30-year repression of some of the worst things that had happened to her and her friends in the ’80s. Ultimately, it worked for me because this wasn't just a character-driven novel where all the conflict comes out of people's own flaws; it's a novel about the ways the world comes at you no matter who you are or what you do. TM: There was an interesting sort of mirror image with the Challenger explosion in the 1985 thread. Was that something you added after having to deal with the Paris attacks, a way to create that similar experience of tragedy, or was it already in the narrative? RM: I can't remember which came first, but it wasn't a related thought process for me (except that in revision I did ask myself if it was too much and ultimately decided it wasn't; if these people really were living in these years, these incidents would indeed have affected them). The Challenger thing just came more out of my looking up the major events of 1986 and putting them on my Google calendar (I have Google calendars for my novels—it's terribly nerdy) and that seemed like something that wouldn't go unremarked. I had a lot of fun with that scene, actually. I think it's the weirdest sex scene I've ever written. TM: I guess tragedy brings people together in weird ways. RM: Which is maybe the thesis of the book! I just don't usually mean it as comically. TM: One of the things that hit me very hard early on in the novel was the myriad of small ways these men suffered every day. There was, of course, the AIDS epidemic and the unbelievable suffering that came with that, but there were also these everyday tragedies, like not being able to hold hands when walking down the street, or when Yale was afraid to keep a photo of Charlie on his desk at work, the way they had to constantly navigate revealing—or not revealing—this important part of themselves to others. And with Yale, I keep coming back to that detail about the missing picture on his desk, and it makes me think of something I saw recently in an interview with Tayari Jones, where she said one should write about “people and their problems, not problems and their people.” For me, Yale felt like a deeply realized character, like Jones’ person with a problem, rather than just a problem with a person attached. There wasn’t a weak character in the book for me, but I find myself still thinking of Yale often (and it was surprising to hear you felt like there was an element of ventriloquism in earlier drafts with him). What was your entry point for him? What was the moment where he became a fully realized character for you? RM: It’s funny; I tried too hard to map out this novel before I started writing, and none of it worked. I realized I had to just dive in and get to know my characters first, and the first thing I wrote did end up being the first chapter—specifically, Yale's really bizarre and lonely experience at his friend's memorial party. I'm not sure that I knew everything about him yet, but I did start to have a real physical sense of him, a sense of him as a real person. He feels realer to me than any character I've ever written, to the point where I've occasionally forgotten he's not real, and have thought of him as someone I once knew intimately but lost. About the everyday stuff: A lot of that wove itself naturally into the story, but I still had some missteps early on, some moments of ignorance. The one that sticks out to me was that in my first draft, after Yale gets separated from his friends, I had him walking down the street looking into the windows of gay bars. It wasn't until I was interviewing someone who was talking about the Chicago bar scene back in the day that I realized that of COURSE you couldn't look IN THE WINDOW of a gay bar in 1985. They all had shaded glass, or black-painted windows. I had a lot of little revelatory moments like that when reading it, a lot of things I've done my whole life and have taken for granted these guys couldn't do, little things that could have gotten these guys seriously hurt or even killed. It was pretty eye-opening. TM: As you work on a novel like this, one that's challenging and takes a number of years, how do you keep yourself excited? How do you resist that siren call of new ideas? RM: I don't know that this is going to work for the interview, but the honest answer is that I had this photo as my computer wallpaper for four years: They kept staring at me. It's five guys at a candlelight vigil in Chicago, around 1991. I learned a lot about one of these guys, and another—the only survivor from the group—sat down and talked to me. It wasn't very tempting to work on anything else when they were staring at me like that. TM: Wow. Yeah, I can see how that would keep you focused. In a recent piece in Tin House, “Candy: A Footnote,” you write that one of the pitfalls of writing is that “no one is ever going to see everything you so carefully invented for them. Not the way you intended.” Is there anything that you’re worried people won’t see here, or will see in a different way than you intended? RM: I mean, it's completely inevitable that people will misunderstand or misinterpret some things. One of the wonderful things for me so far with this book, though, has been the early readers who have told me that they pictured a certain lost friend in a certain role. I have my own mental pictures of these guys, but if people are plugging in memories, pictures of real people, that makes me really happy. And I was writing, in some cases, about places I'd never been, bars that have long since closed—places I could imagine but couldn't picture. And weirdly, some of my readers will be able to picture them in detail because they were there. I like that.
1. I pulled the heavy red book down from my dad’s bookshelf. Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, its cover announced. “David Foster Wallace said it’s the only usage guide he ever consulted,” my dad said, a note of pride in his voice as if he and DFW had been old buddies. “I got it on sale at The Strand.” “Huh,” I said and sat down, opening the tome on my lap to the word “eventuate,” the subject of a controversial debate with a coworker at my day job. The entry was short and snarky: Eventuate is ‘an elaborate journalistic word that can usually be replaced by a simpler word to advantage.’ George P. Krapp, A Comprehensive Guide to Good English (1927). Then came several examples of its misuse, explanations of what was wrong about it, and suggestions for words should have been used in it place (e.g., “happened,” “occurred,” “took place”). This comprehensive lesson perfectly resolved my confusion, since I had misconstrued the meaning of “eventuate” as something along the lines of “would eventually lead to.” “This is terrific!” I told my dad. “Usually when I have a usage question at work, I just Google the question—like further vs. farther—and read the first few entries that pop up.” “See, that’s the trouble with the Internet,” he scoffed, single-handedly dismissing an entire global digital stratosphere. “The demise of authoritative references.” It was nice to have such a complete and well-researched reference on language usage right here at my fingertips. I immediately looked up several more entries, and started chuckling and reading them aloud. “Hey, listen to this, about ‘insofar as:’ ‘the dangers range from mere feebleness or wordiness, through pleonasm or confusion of grammar.’ Zing!” “Keep the Garner’s, then,” my dad said with a smile. “I never use it.” Tickled, I hugged my newest diction and style guide to my chest. What a great new writer’s tool I didn’t even know that I needed. This got me thinking about my other writers’ tools. What are the books that every writer should have handy? My other go-to writing books are not necessarily manuals of mechanics, but instead are resources that provide inspiration, moral support, models of good writing, and above all, comfort. 2. When I was 18, taking expository writing in my first semester of college, my professor, Kevin DiPirro, assigned Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. It was an optional text, so while he assigned us to read certain chapters concurrently with our other assignments, we never once discussed the content of the book in class. Instead, we wrote expository essays trying to frame rhetorical situations, analyze evidence, and make well-researched arguments. But my teacher-student relationship with Natalie Goldberg started that year, and for that, I’ll always be grateful to Kevin. One afternoon, in a darkened corner of the library, I cracked open Writing Down the Bones. What’s this all about? I wondered. Natalie’s words spoke aloud to me, like a calm teacher, echoing in my mind: Writing As Practice This is the practice school of writing… You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance… Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, ‘I am free to write the worst junk in the world.’ You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination… My rule is to finish a notebook a month. Simply fill it. That is the practice. Then, at the end of the chapter: Think of writing practice as loving arms you come to illogically and incoherently. It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, with our fine books and novels. It’s a continual practice. Sit down right now. Give me this moment. Write whatever’s running through you. You might start with this moment and end up writing about the gardenia you wore at your wedding seven years ago. That’s fine. Don’t try to control it. Stay present with whatever comes up, and keep your hand moving. I wrote for about five or 10 minutes in my notebook, and wrote what was running through me. My experiences and deepest longings leapt straight from my heart and out onto the page through my hand, and the act of writing became so simple and direct that it was as if my brain was just a spectator, anxious mutterings quieted at last. By the time I finished, I was quietly sobbing in that dark corner of the library, in the sheltered desk carrel that shielded me from the rest of the campus studying on that day in late September of 2002. Something was unleashed that day, and I was so moved by that feeling of being granted permission to write any way I wanted that I dated that page in Writing Down the Bones. Something big happened here today. I kept that book with me, when things were great and when things were shitty, when I felt despair or years of writer’s block or crippling fear. It’s okay, just write for 10 minutes. Natalie has given me permission to write the worst junk imaginable, because it is the practice that matters. Now, more than a decade later, in my writing sessions, I can finally distinguish the feeling of the juice, the flow of when I’m finally cooking with gas or sparks are flying—pick your metaphor—and I can channel that energy into whatever feels important to work on. But first I have to warm up. Even if I’m writing every day consistently, I still have to shake off the rust and the stiff joints and re-enter the river of writing, the thrall of my own subconscious voice, in order to be receptive enough to conduct electricity when lightning strikes. When I’m stuck, I open up Writing Down the Bones and read: Be Specific Be specific. Don’t say ‘fruit.’ Tell what kind of fruit—‘It is a pomegranate.’ Give things the dignity of their names. Don’t Marry the Fly Watch when you listen to a piece of writing. There might be spaces where your mind wanders. A New Moment Katagiri Roshi often used to say: ‘Take one step off a hundred-foot pole.’ 3. One paradox of my writer’s toolbox of books is that I don’t often write at my writing desk—preferring instead the anonymous yet community feel of a table at my local coffee shop. But I tend to carry that dog-eared and war-torn copy of Writing Down the Bones with me wherever I go. Sometimes I switch it out for my almost-as-demolished copy of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which is funnier and a bit more genre-specific about writing fiction. Over the years, I have trafficked through copies of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, On Writing by Stephen King, Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett—which technically isn’t a craft book, but I lump it in, because it’s a memoir of being a young unpublished writer and of “making it,” documenting one particularly deep writing friendship. You could say that I’m a craft book junkie. You could say that. I also keep books around that remind me of what I love about good writing. I have books that I reread just for the feeling of basking in good writing, like snuggling under a warm blanket or quenching my thirst with a perfectly cold glass of water. Novels like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Motherless Brooklyn, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Fight Club, and the Unbearable Lightness of Being are some of these books, and in college, along with the books I was reading for classes, I kept a “greatest hits” shelf of books that made me feel better just by dint of their being nearby. Yet I don’t own a dictionary. My fiancé, a recreational poet, has a rhyming dictionary, which it has never occurred to me to purchase. I use an online thesaurus regularly at work, but in this digital age, I would never buy a hardcover copy. Recently, I picked up a copy of Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, which I think of as a kind of lifestyle companion for writers delusional enough to think they might someday might make real money from this. It has anecdotal guidance and moral support for writers and those pursuing the writing life, a type of useful and practical advice that reminds me of my regular bimonthly Poets & Writers arrival. My subscription always seems on the verge of lapsing, but I read the magazine cover to cover whenever it arrives. I read the Residencies and Conferences and Grants and Awards sections with a pen in my hand. 4. I was giddy but apprehensive about my gift of Garner’s Modern Usage. My first thought was, I should bring this to work! In my office, my windowsill-turned-bookshelf has on it a weathered copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, an ancient copy of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s Elements of Style, an untouched copy of the AP Style Guide, and Bill Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors. The latter is interesting but not comprehensive, so I eventually stopped looking up entries that didn’t exist. But it has a beautiful cover. My second thought was, Screw work, I want to keep this at home and use it for my own writing at my writing desk! My immediate third thought was, I have to clean my writing desk! Lacking bookshelf space, I started stacking books I’ve just read or want to read on one corner of the small wooden desk I shellacked with rejection slips years ago, back when literary magazines sent paper rejections. I have a tiny ceramic lamp that sits on the other corner of the desk, and without a home office space larger than the footprint of this desk, I’ve collected a variety of other things on its surface—papers, folders, envelopes, DVDs, an unpaid doctor’s bill. My checkbook, more books I’m planning to read, recent drafts of novel revisions, with all manner of handbags and tote bags hanging off the handles of my desk chair like a flea market handbag stall. [millions_ad] Could a single modern usage book revolutionize my home writing space and daily writing practice? I’ve always thought of myself as a writing nomad. Natalie says, Write Anyplace. Okay. Your kids are climbing into the cereal box. You have $1.25 left in your checking account. Your husband can’t find his shoes, your car won’t start, you know you have lived a life of unfulfilled dreams….Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. I write her words, copy them into my notebook, and in that moment, I am reborn. I like having authorities, teachers, mentors on the page. Natalie has taught me a great deal in the 15 years that I’ve been reading and rereading her book. Maybe Bryan Garner can become my newest teacher on the page, in his witty biting asides about “eventuate” and “insofar as” and many other linguistic predicaments that I have yet to identify. Of course, one great appeal of having the voice of Garner giving me authoritative advice on proper usage is that hovering over his shoulder is the friendly specter of David Foster Wallace, and next to him, my dad nodding along and laughing at my enthusiasm. When he gifted me the book, he said, “This is a great reference for a writer.” It’s in those tiny moments that I feel his slight seal of approval, or at least simple affirmation, of that life that I’ve chosen for myself. He sees me as a writer. Thanks, dad.
Late last year, in the wake of the election, with no one quite certain what Donald Trump in the White House would mean, I didn’t know if I’d be able to write for Year in Reading again. I didn’t think I’d ever stop writing, or somehow cut ties with The Millions—I thought there was a chance that reading itself could die out. For a long, embarrassing month, I was a magical thinker, a person inclined, for the first time in his life, to believe that a black hole might swallow the planet come January, or that the Inauguration might kick off something like the Rapture. I didn’t read very much, if at all, because doing so felt beside the point, and plus it was hard to make time when I was busy not sleeping and reading Twitter. A couple months passed. The world failed to end. I found Xanax quite helpful. I slowly realized that if I were killed, I’d want to be a dead man who’d kept reading. So I went out and bought story collections, having found them addictive in college and believing, or more accurately hoping, that stories might turn out to be, as they were for me as a teenager, one of my brain’s more reliable antidotes to cortisol. First on the docket was Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World. I’d read bits of her fiction before, mainly in the Paris Review (which gave her a Plimpton Prize for two of her stories in the magazine), but I’d never read a story of hers (or her novel) from start to finish. Everything she writes is funny and daring, and I’d be ruining the book if I summarized, but I’ll just say that “The Weirdos,” which tells the tale of a woman in Los Angeles who dates an aspiring actor, is easily the best depiction of an idiot that I’ve ever read. There’s nothing boring in here, and quite a lot that’s downright brilliant. [millions_ad] Moving (ahem) across the ocean, I read some Colum McCann, specifically his debut collection Fishing the Sloe-Black River. For readers of TransAtlantic, its fluent, tight lyricism is familiar, but the arcs of its stories are genuinely strange, epiphanic in the best sense of the word. Equally at home in foreign locales as he is his native Ireland, McCann has an old-fashioned empathy that makes everything he writes worth reading. I’d been told I should read one story in particular from Emerald City, but I can now recommend Jennifer Egan’s first collection in full. The book was her debut—her very first New Yorker story, a melancholy account of a photoshoot, appears in there, along with a debaucherous story that draws on her childhood in San Francisco. Goon Squad fans might find it a departure, but it’s up there with the author’s best work. Finally, I discovered You Are Having a Good Time the old-fashioned way: by reading a story that blew me away, and setting out to read everything by the author. That story was “William Wei,” which netted Amie Barrodale the Plimpton Prize (a couple years before Ottessa Moshfegh) and which is good enough that I have to quote its simple, perfect first sentence: “I once brought a girl home because I liked her shoes.” The following sentences are equally perfect—I’ve now read the story seven times. If all of us are lucky, we’ll be here next year, and we’ll all still be reading, and writing about it. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - Manhattan Beach 1 month 2. 3. Exit West 4 months 3. 4. Men Without Women: Stories 6 months 4. 6. The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel 3 months 5. 8. The Changeling 3 months 6. 5. Forest Dark 2 months 7. - Autumn 1 month 8. 7. My Absolute Darling 2 months 9. - Little Fires Everywhere 1 month 10. 9. What We Lose 4 months With Dan Chaon's Ill Will and Omar El Akkad's American War each off to our Hall of Fame, and Elif Batuman's The Idiot dropping off our list, there's room for three newcomers in our October standings - including a new #1. Atop our list sits Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach, her fifth novel and her first in six years. Its immediate ascension indicates that, evidently, Millions readers were champing at the bit for a follow-up to the author's 2011 Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. In our Great 2017 Book Preview, Michael Bourne called Manhattan Beach "a noirish historical novel," which like Goon Squad returns to New York City. Yet the similarities seem to end there: At the Brooklyn Naval Yard, Anna Kerrigan becomes the nation’s first female diver, repairing ships that will help America win World War II. Through a chance encounter, she meets nightclub owner Dexter Styles, who she hopes can help her solve the riddle of her father’s disappearance years before. Farther down in seventh position we find Ali Smith's Autumn, which Claire Cameron identified as "the first novel in what will be a Seasonal quartet — four stand-alone books, each one named after one of the four seasons." Smith, a Scottish writer, turns her attentions here to "time in the post-Brexit world, specifically Autumn 2016, 'exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take.'" Finally, we welcome Year in Reading alum Celeste Ng to our list. Her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, occupies the ninth spot. A few months back, our own Tess Malone remarked on how the book "tangles multiple families in a drama of class and race in a Cleveland suburb." Next month, Haruki Murakami's Men Without Women: Stories will surely graduate to the Hall of Fame, meaning at least one new spot on our list will open. Which book will take its place? Will it be one of the "near misses" below? There's only one way to find out. This month's other near misses included: Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story, and The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake. See Also: Last month's list.
It's the (second) most wonderful time of the year: Millions Most Anticipated Great Second-Half Preview time! Below you will find just shy of 80 wonderful books to get you from July to December 2017. We've got new titles from big names (Erdrich! Eugenides! Ward! Messud!); we've got stellar debuts (Zhang! Clemmons! Rooney! Khong!); we've got translated gems (Binet! Szabó! Krasznahorkai!); we've even got cross-genre celebrities (Weiner! Hanks! McKibben!). The Millions Previews -- both our semi-annual long lists and our newer monthly offerings -- are some of the best things we do at this site. As Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote yesterday, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The site has been running for 14 years on a wing and a prayer, and we're incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do. Please enjoy the rich offerings below, come back August 1 for the monthly preview, and prepare yourselves for 2018 (which, according to our agents in the literary field, is going to be a doozie). July Made for Love by Alissa Nutting: A retiree has sold his station wagon to buy a lifelike sex doll, his daughter’s come home after running out on her paranoid tech billionaire husband, and another man’s been sexually assaulted by a dolphin. Just so you know what you’re getting into: all of this happened in the first 60 pages of Nutting’s new novel, a darkly comic exploration of familial and romantic love, and how technology warps both. (Read our review.) (Nick M.) Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam: Klam was one of The New Yorker’s original “20 Under 40” writers in 1999 and published a story collection, Sam the Cat, the next year. And then nothing. For 17 years. Now at last, Klam is publishing his debut novel, about a has-been cartoonist who leaves his family behind to teach at a weeklong arts conference where he rekindles an affair with one of his students, the unhappy wife of a Wall Street titan. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Klam is hilarious. (Michael) What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons: The buzz around this debut is more like a roar. Thandi is caught between black and white, America and South Africa. When she loses her mother, she has to try to connect the dislocated pieces of her life. While Clemmons has recently burst to prominence, she has long been doing the work to get there. She teaches literature and creative writing, her work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, Transition, the Paris Review Daily, she is co-founder of Apogee Journal, and a contributing editor to LitHub.com. The best part? She's got a two-book deal. (Claire) The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich: Nobel Prize—winner Alexievich is best known stateside for her Voices of Chernobyl, where she documented the stories of survivors of the nuclear disaster, but it’s her first book The Unwomanly Face of War that established her as an oral historian. Alexievich gave voice to the less documented women’s role in WWII by interviewing female gunners, pilots, medical workers, and others. She writes: “Their words and feelings? A whole world is hidden from us. Their war remains unknown...I want to write the history of that war.” First published in English in 1985, this new edition is translated by the renowned Russian duo Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. (Read our interview with her.) (Anne) My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye: A novel “in the existentialist tradition” that both obscures and exposes xenophobia in contemporary French society, the story of provincial school teachers Nadia and her husband, Ange, is described by the publisher as “surreal, allegorical, and psychologically acute,” and by Publishers Weekly in a starred review as “revelatory and devastating." NDiaye, winner of both the Prix Goncourt and Prix Femina, is the author of 13 works of fiction, seven of which have been translated into English. She also co-wrote the powerful, artful film White Material with Claire Denis. Despite comparisons to Elena Ferrante and Doris Lessing, she is little known in the U.S.; hopefully this will change. (Sonya) Refuge by Dina Nayeri: Nayeri’s first novel, A Teaspoon of Earth, follows a young girl as she grows up in post-revolutionary Iran and dreams about her sister’s life in America. Refuge, Nayeri’s second novel, also centers on a young Iranian girl, Niloo, but this time the story is flipped: Niloo flees Iran, leaving her father behind, and grows up in Europe. Twenty years later, she’s a sophisticated academic struggling to navigate her connections to her family, a growing community of Iranian refugees, and her adopted homeland. A nuanced look at what it means to seek refuge; novels don’t get more timely than this. (Kaulie) The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt: Maybe you’ve heard of Hunt’s last novel, Mr. Splitfoot? It’s in our Millions Hall of Fame, and Hunt’s been interviewed for the site. She’s also published in The New Yorker and been reviewed (glowingly) by almost every major publication. Now she’s back with her first collection of short stories and, in true Hunt style, they’re bizarre, beautiful, and haunting. Dead dogs come back to life, women turn into deer, and there’s at least one killer robot; there’s also suburban loneliness and anxiety mixed with a healthy dose of witty humor. What more could you ask for? (Kaulie) Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: In Rooney's debut novel, former lovers and current best friends Frances and Bobbi are Trinity College students turned spoken word artists who become entangled in the lives of Melissa and Nick, an older married couple with married-people problems. Much has been made of Rooney's age (she was born in 1991), and her sharp, funny dialogue. Her editor calls her the "Salinger for the Snapchat generation" and in its review, The Guardian notes, "Her hyperarticulate characters may fail to communicate their fragile selves, but Rooney does it for them in a voice distinctively her own." (Edan) Out in the Open by Jesús Carrasco: In this 2013 debut, the Spanish novelist spins a dystopian yarn tracking a young boy’s flight into the wild. There he is confronted by an ancient goat herder bearing wisdom that trust is a hard-won commodity, and once violated, often too fragile to ever be redeemed. Described as “harrowing,” “stark,” “violent,” and “parabolic,” Out in the Open provides a timely and certainly intense meditation on the role trust plays in cultural progress and preservation. A reliably literate, fluid Margaret Jull Costa translation makes for a gripping read. (Il’ja) A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause by Shawn Wen: A long essay exploring, of all things, a mime. Wen, a former radio producer, pens this tribute to Marcel Marceau, the “artist of silence,” who in addition to being the most well-known mime in history was also a Holocaust survivor and member of the French Resistance. Kirkus raves “Readers will marvel not only at Marceau, but at the book itself, which displays such command of the material and such perfect pitch.” (Lydia) The Art of Death by Edwidge Danticat: In this hybrid work of memoir-criticism, prolific writer (and Year in Reading alumna) Danticat reflects on the death of her mother, part of a longer meditation on the way that artists cope with death. Michiko Kakutani writes that Danticat “wants to learn how to use language to try to express the inexpressible, to use her art to mourn.” (Lydia) Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: Khong, who was an editor at Lucky Peach, brings us a debut novel about a 30-year-old woman who's moved back home with her parents to help with her father's Alzheimer's. Told in short vignettes that span a single year, Goodbye, Vitamin has, according to Justin Taylor, "breathed fresh life into the slacker comedy, the family drama, and the campus novel." In its starred review, Booklist writes: "In her tender, well-paced debut novel...Khong writes heartbreaking family drama with charm, perfect prose, and deadpan humor." (Edan) South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby: Just when you think you’ve seen all the books, along comes a comedy of manners about climate change starring a ragtag team of cultural misfits at the edge of the world. Shelby’s novel grew out of a(n award-winning) short story, but its scope is capacious; in an advance review, Year in Reading alum Robin Sloan says “South Pole Station is a portrait painted with the whole palette―science and politics; art and history; love and frostbite―and all of it crackles with the can't-make-this-up details of life at the bottom of the world.” (Kirstin) Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz: 1960s and 70s L.A. party girl and writer extraordinaire Babitz is having a revival. Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company were recently published by NYRB Classics, and now her novel Sex and Rage is being re-issued by Counterpoint. Readers can’t seem to get enough of her writing and it’s hard to imagine literary L.A. without her voice. That’s because Los Angeles is not just a setting in her work, it’s not a character, it’s not a myth, or a lover. It’s love itself. (Zoë) The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor: Fermor, who died in 2011, is perhaps best known for the books chronicling his youthful tramp across Interwar Europe—drinking and frolicking and picking up a half-dozen languages along the way. Here, in his only novel (originally published in 1953), the action is concentrated on the island of Saint Jacques, whose French aristocracy is in the midst of Mardi Gras revels. A volcano looms over the picturesque town in carnival, an outsized force of nature in this slender work as florid as it is fun. (Matt) Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen: The latest by the man behind the labyrinthine Book of Numbers kicks off with a situation that’s nothing if not explosive. Two Israeli veterans, Yoav and Uri, decide to spend a year in New York with Yoav’s cousin, a right-wing American patriot who runs a tri-state moving company. In short order, the two get enlisted to work as ruthless eviction-movers, which leads inevitably to one homeowner seeking revenge. (Thom) A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma: The title of Sharma’s new story collection is apparently ironic—“An apter phrase might be ‘bad luck and isolation,’” according to Kirkus Reviews. David Sedaris deems the stories “complex, funny enough to laugh out loud at but emotionally devastating,” and the Kirkus reviewer does ultimately concede that the stories exhibit “a psychological acuity that redeems their dark worldview.” Fans of Sharma’s Family Life may be interested in a story that seems to have been the seed of that novel. And if you’re interested in a sneak, the title story and “You are Happy?” (among others) were both published in The New Yorker. (Sonya) The Epiphany Machine by David Burr Gerrard: In an interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn about his first novel, Short Century, Gerrard succinctly described the plot of his second: “It’s about a machine that tattoos epiphanies on the forearms of its users. That is my attempt to question and honor one of the major ideas of fiction, which is that fiction should lead up to an epiphany.” This new work explores the effects of such epiphanies—the narrator’s tattoo reads “Dependent on the Opinion of Others”—on the inscribed-upon individuals and society as a whole. The result, according to Publishers Weekly, is a “wildly charming, morally serious bildungsroman.” (Matt) I Hear Your Voice by Young-ha Kim: One of Korea's most prolific and celebrated authors brings us a new novel, translated by Krys Lee, about two young men on the streets of Seoul: Jae, who is abandoned as a baby and becomes a leader of a powerful motorcycle gang, and Dongyu, who runs away from home as a teenager to follow Jae. Booklist remarks: "this is a wrenching examination of discarded youth, abuses of power, and the irreparable disintegration of societal structures," and John Darnielle is a fan, saying, "Young-ha Kim is kin to those writers of more experimental times than ours: Daniel Defoe and Thomas Nashe, writers who followed their stories and themes into whatever haunted, humid dark corners they found, and who weren't afraid to linger in those places to see what else might be there. (Edan) Like A Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina: Part memoir and part historical fiction, this unusual book uses recently declassified FBI files to trace the escape of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray. With a fake passport, Ray managed to elude capture for 10 days in Lisbon, Portugal. Muñoz Molina’s fascination with this story has to do, in part, with his personal connection to Lisbon, a city that was the inspiration for his first novel, Winter in Lisbon. Muñoz Molina recounts Ray’s hideouts in Lisbon in 1968, while also looking back on his own memories of the place, when he lived there in the late 1980s, and was just getting started as a novelist. Throughout the narrative, Muñoz Molina reflects on the writing process itself, and how he came to construct Ray’s narrative. (Hannah) August The Burning Girl by Claire Messud: Following The Woman Upstairs, Messud's new novel tells the story of lifelong friends Julia and Cassie. Their paths diverge and the result is a story about adolescence that contrasts a childhood’s imaginary world against adult reality. Messud, who will always have my heart for her response to a question about an unlikeable female character, tackles big questions with complex and nuanced novels. It looks like this will deliver. (Claire) Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Sour Heart is Lena Dunham’s first pick for her imprint at Random House, which is a delight since Zhang is a powerful fiction writer who offers an intimate look at girlhood. Karan Mahajan says that the book, which is narrated by daughters of Chinese immigrants, “blasts opens the so-called immigrant narrative.” And Miranda July reveals that Sour Heart will come to “shape the world—not just the literary world, but what we know about reality.” (Zoë) Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta: Here is how Mrs. Fletcher, the seventh novel by the author behind The Leftovers, begins: a woman named Eve Fletcher gets an anonymous text with a simple and unsubtle message: “U R a MILF!” The message, over the course of several months, drives Mrs. Fletcher to grow obsessed with a MILF-porn website, which leads to some unsavory consequences in her day-to-day life. It doesn’t bode well that she’s also the director of a senior center. (Thom) The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet: French intellectual history is unlikely whodunit territory, but leave it to Binet to mine comic and genre gold from the milieu of 1980s Paris. Set into motion by the sudden (and real-life) 1980 death of cultural critic Roland Barthes, Binet’s novel features all the literary and cultural heavyweights of the time—Butler, Derrida, Deleuze, Eco, Foucault, and Kristeva—while also, in a Calvino-like touch, including a hunt for a manuscript that purports to unlock hitherto unknown linguistic mysteries. Highbrow hijinks ensue, obviously. (Kirstin) The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk: The 10th novel from Nobel Prize-winning Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman is a story of fathers, sons, and myths. Master Mahmut, a traditional Turkish well-digger, and his young apprentice work hard at their back-breaking trade, searching for water in a barren land, until an accident changes everything; the “demonic” voice of a red-haired woman haunts the survivor. Allusions to Oedipus Rex and Shanameh, stories of patricide and filicide, fill the novel, but there’s more than a little mystery here as well. And since this is Pamuk, you can be sure to find plenty of musings on the clash between modernism and tradition, new and old. (Kaulie) New People by Danzy Senna: The fifth book from Senna, whose previous work includes the best-selling novel Caucasia and a memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, about her parents’ marriage. Like her earlier work, New People explores complex issues of race and class, following two light-skinned black Americans who marry and attempt to have it all in Brooklyn in the 1990s. In her review for The New Republic, Morgan Jerkins writes “What this novel succeeds in is creating a dense psychological portrait of a black woman nearing the close of the 20th century: inquisitive, obsessive, imaginative, alive.” (Lydia) Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard: What’s newsworthy about Autumn is what it is not: it’s not an entry in the epic (and still going) My Struggle, which made Knausgaard famous. Instead, it’s book number one in a new, unrelated project, which the author refers to (naturally) as the Four Seasons Quartet. Conceived as a “lexicon for an unborn child,” the projects consists of hundreds of very short texts, each of which tackles a different everyday object. “Now, as I write this,” the first entry begins, “you know nothing about anything, about what awaits you, the kind of world you will be born into. And I know nothing about you...” (Thom) Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie: Described as “a modern-day Antigone,” Home Fire follows Isma Pasha, a British woman who comes to America in pursuit of her Ph.D., her beautiful younger sister, and their brother, who’s haunted by the legacy of their jihadi father. Add in a rival London family, an increasingly tense political climate, an impossible romance, and remorse in Raqqa, and perhaps you can begin to see the Grecian similarities. The latest novel from Shamsie, whose Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, Home Fire should prove moving and thought-provoking, even for those who never cared much for Antigone. (Kaulie) The Mountain by Paul Yoon: In his second published story collection, Yoon presents six distinct stories set at various times—past, present, and future—and all across the world. Throughout, characters are linked not by personal connections to one another, but instead by a shared theme: how they reconcile violent, traumatic pasts with their present-day lives. (Nick M.) The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard: The Ribkins are quite the talented family. Johnny Ribkins, now 72, can make a precise map of any space, whether he’s been there or not. Johnny’s father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale walls. His cousin belches fire. This black American family once used their powers to advance the civil rights movement, but when disillusionment set in, Johnny and his brother turned their talents to a string of audacious burglaries. Now Johnny’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from a mobster—or he’ll swim with the fishes, as they say. Praised by Toni Morrison and Mary Gaitskill, Hubbard arrives on the scene with an auspicious bang. (Bill) White Plains by Gordon Lish: Would we be highlighting this collection of literary odds and ends from a tiny indie press if its author were not the erstwhile Captain Fiction, editor of Raymond Carver’s early stories, and one of American fiction’s most infamous provocateurs? Probably not. Even the publisher’s own promotional materials expend more words on Lish than on the book he has written, enigmatically subtitled Pieces and Witherings. But whatever else can be said about the man, Lish is among the most influential literary figures of his generation. His own work, though wildly uneven, is worth a read. (Michael) After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus: In her life and work, radical punk writer Kathy Acker assaulted the male hegemony of narrative fiction with her transgressive experimental books, including Blood & Guts in High School and her re-appropriation of Great Expectations. As true to these ideals in life, Acker begat a full mythology. “Acker understands that writing without myth is nothing,” writes Kraus, Semiotext(e) editor, author of I Love Dick, and now author of Acker’s first biography. After Kathy Acker, according to Sheila Heti, “feels like it’s being told in one long rush of a monologue over late-night drinks by someone who was there.” (Anne) Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah: Gurnah’s Gravel Heart is a book that may remind some readers of the author's Man Booker Prize finalist, Paradise. It circles around the falling of a society, herein Zanzibar, in the wake of colonial disruption. The protagonist, Salim, is caught in the midst of all this, and his slow spinning—internally and externally—revolves into a moving portraiture of a man caught in a web of things, hard and difficult. The structure of the book pays homage to William Shakespeare, and it may this that solidifies Gurnah’s ninth novel as an ambitious work worthy of attention. (Chigozie) My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: The book industry trades in superlatives, but the buzz for this debut novel stands out. To read it is to become an evangelist for it, apparently, and Stephen King says he’ll remember it forever. It’s about 14-year-old Turtle Alveston and her “tortured but charismatic father,” from whom she’s gradually realized she needs to escape, with the help of her one and only friend and an arsenal of survival skills. (Janet) Eastman Was Here by Alex Gilvarry: Artistic ambition, intellectual misogyny, and Saigon provide the backdrop for Gilvarry’s second novel, whose Norman Mailer-like protagonist seeks to reclaim his former journalistic eminence by chronicling the end of the Vietnam War. It turns out, however, that no matter how far from home you go, you take your troubles with you; and the titular Eastman finds that his ghosts, like those of the nation that created his oversized public persona, can’t be outrun. Year in Reading alum Saïd Sayrafiezadeh says “Eastman Was Here is a wildly entertaining book, intoxicatingly written and deceptively profound in its insights into the nature of celebrity, country, marriage, war and the pitfalls of being a writer.” (Kirstin) Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo: This debut was described by The Guardian as a “clever and funny take on domestic life and Nigerian society.” Set in the 1980s, the story centers around the familial—and family planning—struggles of a young woman trying to conceive. She does everything she can, including ascending the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, goat in tow, only to have her in-laws foist a second, and presumably more fertile, wife, upon her feckless husband. Published earlier this year in Britain, the novel was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction. (Matt) The Future Won’t Be Long by Jarett Kobek: Kobek had a surprise hit on his hands with 2016’s I Hate The Internet, his self-published satirical novel that lambasted the tech industry’s distortion of San Francisco. After that novel published to favorable reviews—including one from Dwight Garner in The New York Times—and strong sales, Kobek is returning with The Future Won’t Be Long.The forthcoming novel is a prequel to Internet that finds a younger version of Internet's protagonist, Adeline, as a struggling young artist in New York. Written before Internet, Won’t Be Long tracks Adeline and her friend Baby as they navigate, in Kobek’s words, “the decaying remnants of Punk New York.” We can expect this novel to observe that decay with the same wit that characterized Internet. (Read our interview with him.) (Ismail) A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: New Orleans native Sexton’s debut novel tracks the sliding fortunes of three generations of a black family in her hometown, as they move from tenuous middle-class respectability during World War II through the ravages of the War on Drugs, the crack epidemic, and the psychic calamity of Hurricane Katrina, casualties of the American Dream that has unraveled from Jim Crow to Donald Trump. (Bill) To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts by Caitlin Hamilton Summie: Ten stories whose settings range widely from WWII Kansas City to New York City to western Massachusetts to woodsy Wisconsin to rural Minnesota and the Twin Cities—from a writer who’s been working the biz side of indie publishing for decades. Foreword Reviews writes: "What is remembered; what is missed; what will never be again...all these are addressed with the tenderness of a wise observer whose heart is large enough, kind enough, to embrace them all without judgment...intense and finely crafted.” From Kirkus: “...Summie writes elegantly of Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, with their disappearing farmland, aging population, and winters that are both brutal and engendering of intimacy.” Summie’s debut marks her later-life chapter, and you can read about that in our interview with her here. (Sonya) September Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Ward returns with her first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones. Ward’s two books between, a memoir (Men We Reaped) and a book of essays she edited (The Fire This Time), deal head-on with racism in America and the woeful ways it’s still deeply embedded in our society. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s southern-steeped voice is just as keen and continues to take on the South’s murky history, this time through the young Jojo as he travels with his drug-addicted mother and baby sister as they go to pick up his father just released from prison. (Anne) Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Krauss's fourth novel follows the lives of two Americans in Israel in alternating chapters. The first character, Jules Epstein, is a recently-divorced, retired lawyer drawn to a rabbi; the second, a novelist named Nicole, is recruited by a mysterious literature professor working on a project about Franz Kafka. Krauss's novel A History of Love has been rightly praised, but this new book might send people back to her equally intriguing debut, Man Walks into a Room, another investigation of what happens when our lives are radically transformed. (Nick R.) Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: With her 2014 debut, Everything I Never Told You, Ng proved she is a powerful storyteller of multifaceted families and the women within them forced to make difficult decisions. Her sophomore effort tangles multiple families in a drama of class and race in a Cleveland suburb. When single mother and artist Mia Warren moves to Shaker Heights, she rents from the well-off Richardson family. Of course, the initial fascination with the Warrens turns sour when they are pitted against the Richardsons in a town rift about a family adopting a Chinese-American child. (Tess) The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: National Book Award winner McDermott is simply one of the finest living Catholic writers, and her new novel looks to capture the spirit of her previous work: families and cultures strained by the optimism of faith tempered by the suffering of reality. A man's suicide early in the novel leaves behind his pregnant wife. She is comforted by The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, a Brooklyn convent. A generational novel sure to appeal to longtime McDermott fans, and to bring-in new readers as well. (Nick R.) Five-Carat Soul by James McBride: McBride returns to fiction for the first time since winning the National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird, his masterly novel about the exploits of the doomed abolitionist John Brown and his entourage. McBride’s new book, Five-Carat Soul, is a collection of stories told through the eyes of an antique toy dealer who makes the score of a lifetime; the poor kids in a neighborhood band called the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band; a mixed-race child who believes he’s the son of Abraham Lincoln; a boxer; a lion; a doctoral student who uncovers a beautifully complicated war story. Five-Carat Soul will thrill fans of McBride’s unmistakable fictional voice. (Bill) The Golden House by Salman Rushdie: Rushdie’s 13th novel—heralded by his American publisher as a return to realism—is concerned with the lives of the extremely wealthy in Obama-era Manhattan. On Obama’s inauguration day, a mysterious billionaire named Nero Golden and his three adult sons move into a “cloistered community” in Greenwich Village. Their young neighbor René, drawn in by the family’s glamor, finds himself increasingly entangled in their lives, while elsewhere in Manhattan, another billionaire—or, well, perhaps we should go with “self-proclaimed billionaire,” because who knows—begins an improbable campaign for the presidency. (Emily) The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison: This volume collects the great novelist’s Norton lectures at Harvard University, giving those of us who didn’t get to attend a glimpse at Morrison’s thoughts on race and otherness, and how these things affect literature and lives around the world. The lectures also include revealing discussion of her own novels. With an introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Lydia) Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander: Though the latest by Englander takes place on three different continents, at heart it’s a novel about the conflicts of modern Israel. Z, or rather Prisoner Z, has been held at a black site in the desert for close to 12 years, where the only company he’s allowed is a single guard. The one official who knows about him is a comatose figure named The General. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn who Z really is: an American operative who compromised Israeli state secrets. (Thom) Katalin Street by Magda Szabó: Why does writing this vivid take so long to find its way West? Equal parts lament, paean, and family saga, Szabó’s 1969 novel (and 2007 Prix Cévennes winner) in Len Rix’s legato English translation captures handily the “double tragedy of eastern Europe”—razed by Nazis and rebuilt by Communists. The unquiet spirits of post-war Budapest put meat on the bones of the Soviet joke that “only the past is unpredictable,” and one less-than-silent witness of the sins and slights of a shattered community harbors no illusions about permitting the living to exist peaceably in the soft-focus sentimentality of their survival. (Il’ja) Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke: I heard Locke—award-winning author of Pleasantville, a writer on Fox’s Empire, and a native of Texas—say that she wanted to write something about the black experience in the South that wasn’t only about prejudice, but showed that complexity and love and joy exist even in oppressive systems. I may be paraphrasing poorly, but I’m excited to read her book, which is about a black Texas Ranger trying to solve the murders of a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman. (Janet) The Living Infinite by Chantel Acevedo: Acevedo’s third novel is a retelling of the life of the Spanish princess Eulalia, born four years before the revolution that removed her mother, Queen Isabella II, from the Spanish throne. After an upbringing in the Spanish court and in exile, Eulalia traveled first to Cuba and then to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, with secret hopes of finding a publisher for her scandalous memoir. (Emily) The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson: It is 1930, in Cotton County, Ga., and Elma Jesup, a white sharecropper’s daughter, gives birth to two babies, one light-skinned, the other dark. A field hand is accused of her rape, lynched, and dragged behind a truck down a road known as the Twelve-Mile Straight. So begins this second novel by the author of the radically different Ten Thousand Saints, set in New York’s gritty Lower East Side in the 1980s. “This is the kind of novel you sink into, live inside,” says Victor LaValle, author of The Changeling, about The Twelve-Mile Straight. (Michael) Draft No. 4 by John McPhee: McPhee has been producing lithe nonfiction pieces like “Uncommon Carriers,” “The Ransom of Russian Art,” and “Coming Into the Country” for The New Yorker for 54 years. That alone should provide sufficient incentive to sit up and listen when the man offers a primer in the how, the why, the who, and the humor of getting at the story without sacrificing the art. And that’s what Draft No. 4 is: eight crunchily practical, previously published New Yorker essays/workshops on the craft of creative nonfiction. Written by the departmental dean, no less. (Il’ja) A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe: Rowe’s two previous books—How a Moth Becomes a Boat and Tarcutta Wake—were collections that walked the line between short fiction and prose poetry. A Loving, Faithful Animal, her exquisite first novel, is concerned with the long shadow of war across generations. Rowe tells the story of a fractured family in 1990s Australia after the father, a Vietnam War veteran, leaves home. (Emily) Border by Kapka Kassabova: When Kassabova was a child growing up in Iron Curtain-era Bulgaria, the country’s isolated southern borderland—where Bulgaria meets Turkey and Greece—was rumored to be a relatively easy crossing point into the West, and so the region swarmed with migrants, soldiers, and spies. In Border, a work of narrative reportage, Kassabova returns to a region whose natural beauty is matched only by the complexity of its political and cultural landscapes: the Communist-era spies have long since departed, but the borderland, Mark Mazower wrote recently in The Guardian, remains “an environment that does not spare the unlucky or the vulnerable.” (Emily) The Doubles by Scott Esposito: Esposito wears many literary hats as founder of lit blog Conversational Reading and its companion journal Quarterly Conversation; as director at Two Lines Press; and as a columnist at Lit Hub writing on strategies for enduring the Trump Presidency. With The Doubles, he turns his focus to film and through film, back to his own life. Mathew Specktor writes that through this prism, Esposito “arrives at something magnificent: a work of sustained criticism that is itself a work of high art and a profound meditation on how the art we see becomes who we are.” (Anne) October Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Six years after her quirkily brilliant novel-in-stories A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer, Egan is back with a noirish historical novel set in wartime Brooklyn. At the Brooklyn Naval Yard, Anna Kerrigan becomes the nation’s first female diver, repairing ships that will help America win World War II. Through a chance encounter, she meets nightclub owner Dexter Styles, who she hopes can help her solve the riddle of her father’s disappearance years before. (Michael) Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides: Surprisingly, this is Eugenides’s first collection of short fiction—a debut of sorts from an author best known for his novels, especially his sprawling, Pulitzer Prize-winning saga, Middlesex. The stories in this collection span Eugenides’s 25-year career, and many were originally published in The New Yorker, including the story “Baster,” which was adapted into the 2010 romantic comedy The Switch. (Hannah) Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien: After the massive success of Man Booker Prize shortlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the world has realized that Thien is one of the most gifted and powerful novelists writing today. Her previous novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, set in Cambodia during the regime of the Khmer Rouge and in present day Montreal, explores the aftermath of war. It was published in Canada 2011 and will now be released in the U.S. for the first time. Welcome to the party. (Claire) We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A collection of new and previously published essays on the Obama years, from the writer whose access to and insights about the former president were beautifully documented in The Atlantic essay “My President Was Black.” The new collection includes an interview with Obama. (Lydia) A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg: A decade after it first appeared, Hallberg’s debut illustrated novella is being reissued in a newly designed edition. It arrives two years after Hallberg, a contributing editor at The Millions, published his breathtaking first novel, City on Fire. Field Guide consists of 63 interlinked vignettes with accompanying photographs and annotations, which probe the inner workings of two families in the New York suburbs. The book’s subtitle would have delighted John James Audubon: “Concerning chiefly the Hungates and Harrisons, with accounts of their habits, nesting, dispersion, etc., and full descriptions of the plumage of both adult and young, with a taxonomic survey of several aspects of family life.” Taxonomic is the perfect word for this gorgeously executed little marvel. (Bill) Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: Machado is a talented essayist; particularly notable are her pieces for The New Yorker, including "O Adjunct! My Adjunct!," one of the finest examinations of the adjunct crisis in America. Her fiction deals with more surreal fears, with sharply-drawn pieces like "Horror Story" in Granta: "It started so small: a mysteriously clogged drain; a crack in the bedroom window." Stories like "The Husband Stitch" are marvels of language and experimentation. A fiction debut to watch. (Nick R.). Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks: Yes, it is that Tom Hanks. A collection of 17 short stories involving typewriters, which the author also collects in real life. This is the debut collection of the 60-year-old cinema lion. According to The Guardian, everything came together for Hanks as a fiction writer when he published this story in The New Yorker in 2014. (Lydia) The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón: Award-winning writer Alarcón returns with a new short story collection that features a wide range of memorable characters. The King Is Always Above the People examines immigration, Latin American families, Los Angeles, and much more. Alarcón has received much critical acclaim for his previous books and his most recent novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, was a finalist for the 2014 Pen-Faulkner Award. (Zoë) Here in Berlin by Cristina García: The Cuban-born American writer García—novelist, journalist, poet, anthologist, and National Book Award finalist—transports us to Berlin for her seventh novel. An unnamed Visitor, armed with a camera, goes spelunking in the German capital, seeking to reckon with the city’s tangled, living history. The result is a series of snapshots: a Cuban teenager taken as a POW on a German submarine; a female lawyer still haunted by her childhood in the bombed-out suburbs of Berlin; the son of a Berlin zookeeper who fought to protect the animals from both bombs and a starving human populace. These and other ghosts still walk the streets of García’s bewitching contemporary Berlin. (Bill) A Natural by Ross Raisin: Named one of Granta's “Best Young British Novelists” in 2013 and the author of books (God’s Own Country, Waterline) about intense loners, Raisin places his latest protagonist within a more communal setting: a soccer (or rather football) club. The novel follows a young, gay player navigating the sporting world. As Raisin explained in an interview, the subject threw some British publishers off, who explained their reasoning thusly: “We don’t know how to sell it to women because it’s about football, but at the same time we don’t know how we sell it to football supporters because it’s got gay in it.” Quite the dilemma, but thankfully not all were scared off the pitch. (Matt) Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia: Ferocity is the latest from Europa Editions, which also publishes Elena Ferrante (as well as gems like Treasure Island!!! and The Elegance of Hedgehog). Pitched as Gillian Flynn meets Jonathan Franzen, Ferocity won the 2015 Strega Prize, Italy's preeminent fiction prize, and concerns a dead woman, her brother who's set on figuring out what happened to her, and Southern Italy in the 1980s. Sign me up. (Edan) Vacationland by John Hodgman: Known variously for his work on The Daily Show, his podcast and New York Times Magazine column—both titled "Judge John Hodgman"—his role as “the PC” in those Mac commercials in the aughts, and three books of fake facts, Hodgman is a unique and hilarious public figure. Hodgman’s new book—a memoir about fatherhood, aging, travel, and his home state of Massachusetts—is the most (maybe the first) unironic thing in his career. (Janet) November Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: A new offering from Erdrich on the heels of her National Book Critics Circle Award win for LaRose last year. The new book takes place during an environmental cataclysm—evolution has begun reversing itself, and pregnant women are being rounded up and confined. A pregnant woman who was adopted in infancy from her Ojibwe birth mother returns to her mother’s reservation to pursue her own origin story even while society crumbles around her. (Lydia) Don't Save Anything by James Salter: November 2017. I remember hearing Salter read his heartbreaking story "Last Night" to a captivated audience in Newark, N.J., at Rutgers University—it was a moment of shared intimacy that I've rarely experienced at a reading. Salter had a presence both on and off the page. Don't Save Anything collects Salter's previously uncollected non-fiction; essays that appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, People, and elsewhere. The book's title comes from a line from one of Salter's final interviews: "You try to put everything you have in a book. That is, don't save anything for the next one." (Nick R.) Mean by Myriam Gurba: In her coming-of-age nonfiction novel about growing up queer and Chicana, Gurba takes on misogyny, racism, homophobia, and classism with cutting humor. Mean will make you LOL and break your heart. Mean has already received advance praise from brilliant, badass feminist writers Jill Soloway, Michelle Tea, and Wendy C. Ortiz. Gurba’s previous book Dahlia Season won the Edmund White Award and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. (Zoë) Houses of Ravicka by Renee Gladman: This fall Dorothy Project publishes Houses of Ravicka, the fourth book in Gladman’s series of novels set in the city-state of Ravicka and told in the author's nimble prose. The books catalog the intricacies of language and architecture and their intersection—something Gladman’s recent Prose Architectures from Wave Press does quite literally. As The Renaissance Society notes, “Gladman approaches language as a space to enter and travel within, and her writing is attuned to the body as it moves through architectures of thought and experience.” In this latest volume, Ravicka’s comptroller tracks the ways the houses in the city-state shift with time. (Anne) The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai: The Hungarian author has described his style as “fun in hell.” With this, the seventh! New Directions translation of his work, English language hell just got even more fun. A giant with an H2O fixation and a Portuguese child quarry slave on a quest for the surreal are just two of the characters met in this short story collection that examines the practicalities of cultural entropy, and stylistically sacrifices little of the author’s depth, range, and extraordinary stacking of subordinate clauses. These stories should provide the uninitiated with a workable introduction to Krasznahorkai and his formidable oeuvre. (Il’ja) Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner: The creator of Mad Men and former writer and producer for The Sopranos applies his screenwriting chops to literary fiction with this debut novel. Set in a privileged milieu in modern-day New York, it’s been described as “a dark fable,” “a collision course,” and, most intriguingly, by Philip Pullman, as a story characterized by an “ice-cold mercilessness reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh.” At 144 pages, this novel apparently cuts to the chase and doesn’t spare any of its characters. (Hannah) Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben: Is it a surprise that the debut novel from one of our best-known environmental activists focuses on grassroots resistance? In backwoods Vermont, two radicals use an underground radio show to recruit people interested in seceding from the United States. What follows is a zany, witty, and altogether timely imagination of modern resistors. (Nick M.) They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: A collection of essays on music, culture, and personal history from the poet and Year in Reading alum (and MTV News writer, before MTV News made their woeful decision to “pivot to video”). Terrance Hayes writes, "Abdurraqib bridges the bravado and bling of praise with the blood and tears of elegy." (Lydia) December The Vanishing Princess by Jenny Diski: British writer Diski won a wide following with a strikingly clear-eyed chronicle of her battle with the lung cancer that killed her last year at the age of 68. The Vanishing Princess, her only collection of short stories, is now available in the U.S. for the first time, and it will be welcomed by fans of Diski’s piercing nonfiction and dreamlike novels. In the story “Short Circuit,” Diski mines her own stays in mental institutions to pose an old but not unreasonable question: are the people we regard as mad the truly sane ones? (Bill) Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Şafak: Şafak is one of Turkey’s most popular novelists, and her fiction and nonfiction has been translated around the world. Three Daughters of Eve, her 10th novel, takes place in contemporary Istanbul, but looks back on an earlier era, as Peri, a wealthy housewife, recalls her friendship with two fellow students at Oxford University. Together, these three young women became close through their studies, debating the role of women in Islam, and falling under the influence of a charismatic but controversial professor. The scandal that broke them apart still haunts Peri. (Hannah)
In the year 1999, Dan Chaon became my creative writing teacher. He was very young, and had just one book so far, a story collection called Fitting Ends, published by Northwestern University Press. I was basically a freckled zygote in red clogs who had no clue how to write a scene, much less a series of them. Dan showed me what was what, and he also said, Hey, read some Joy Williams, read some Lorrie Moore, do you know who Alice Munro is? Dan read everything, it seemed, and I was inspired to follow his example. In the years since, he has gone on to publish a second story collection, Among the Missing, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and two novels, including Await Your Reply, and then a third collection called Stay Awake. After reading his new novel, Ill Will, I can say, without reservation, that he is one of my favorite writers, living or dead, right up there with Edith Wharton and Margaret Atwood. His work is ambitious and weird. His characters are complicated and usually damaged, they make the wrong choices, they feel real. His prose is musical, and his imagery is at once startling and accurate. He writes stories that are compelling: stuff happens! Ill Will is about a man named Dustin whose boyhood testimony sent his adopted brother, Rusty, to prison for killing their parents, aunt, and uncle. Now, 30 years later, DNA evidence has exonerated Rusty, and Dustin is forced to face the past he's so diligently pushed out of his mind. But since this is a Dan Chaon book, there are other, equally striking and dark narrative threads. Dustin's wife is dying. One of his sons is losing control of his life. One of his therapy clients is obsessed with a string of drowning deaths, and he draws Dustin into his amateur investigation. This is a novel about grief, about being unable to accept reality, and about the myriad ways we trick ourselves about our selves. Dan was nice enough to answer some questions I had about the book via email. He said the first one felt like "a trap." Read at your own peril. The Millions: I was reading your book on Election Day and during the aftermath, too, when I have honestly never been more terrified for the future...and I wrote a post-apocalyptic novel for god's sake! The night of November 8th, I actually willed myself away from the TV and the Internet and went to read in my bedroom, trying to calm myself. It worked, for a while, because your novel is wonderfully immersive -- as a reader you want to know what exactly happened to Dustin's parents and aunt and uncle, and you're so deeply inside the characters' consciousnesses that it's impossible to think of any world but theirs. Can you talk about creating an immersive experience on the page? Dan Chaon: Edan, this is one of those lead-ins that feels like a trap. Like, you ask me: “What makes you so immersive?” And I’m like, “Uh…you tell me?” Cuz I don’t know. I know that there’s definitely some people who are disappointed and bored by the crap I write, and then there are people who like it, but I don’t have any control over it at all. All I can say is that I personally fell into this story and that it managed to colonize my imagination for many years. As a teenager in the 1980s, I was fascinated by the serial killer novels that were popular then, and I’ve always been a fan of the thriller genre, so as a writer I wanted to try my hand at it. At the same time, Ill Will is a deeply personal project, and I found that having the framework of the genre allowed me to write about grief and loss and self-deception more directly and honestly than I would have if I’d been writing a more autobiographical book. For some reason, the two things hooked together, and I had a “fantasy world” that was powered by my real emotion, which I think is the exact vehicle that you need when you’re writing fiction. In terms of an “immersive experience,” readers’ mileage may vary. I was trying to find a balance between writing a straight-up Silence of the Lambs style procedural, and something more personal and idiosyncratic. I hope that there is enough here to satisfy readers of both genres. TM: I wonder if you feel if your writing has changed, or will change, in this Trump era. Do you have a different job, as a writer of fictive worlds, than you did before he took power? DC: This is such a hard question to answer. I’m writing this on Feb. 8, 2017, and it’s only a few weeks into Trump’s presidency, so I have no idea where we’ll be when this interview is published. I have never experienced this degree of destabilization before -- I don’t have any idea what shape the world will be in when my book comes out next month. We might be at war. There might be riots. I’m guessing, though, that everything won’t be fine. Hi, people of the future! From Dan, in February 2017! YOLO! But to answer your question from my current innocent position, I don’t know. I think we create fiction from the sewage that we are swimming in, and that whatever the world feels like at the moment will always infuse the fiction that we’re writing, like a tea bag in hot water. I wouldn’t have anticipated that the concerns of this book—self-deception, fake news, manipulation, denial—would be so pertinent when the book came out. There may be a slight case of prescience in it, but I wouldn’t call it luck. TM: This world you immerse your readers in is also a bleak one: four people were brutally killed decades earlier; Dustin's wife is dying of cancer; Dustin's son Aaron is addicted to heroin and floating through his grief; Cleveland is in post-industrial rot. But it's also funny. I laughed out loud quite a few times, especially during Aaron's millennial narration. Stuff like: "I never understood why people from the 1980s thought there'd be flying cars. It just seemed really dangerous and impractical to me, but they all talked about it, so it must have been a thing. Meanwhile, my dream for the future was that it wouldn't involve mass extinction and large-scale water shortages and cannibalism." Your work has always had this strain of twisted amusement, but it feels amped up here. Was this deliberate? DC: I’m always cautious about the word “deliberate,” because so much of the tone of a piece feels outside of my conscious control. I actually found myself kind of unnerved that, for some reason, large stretches of the bleak and horrible landscape of Ill Will were hilarious to me. Maybe some degree of levity was necessary for me, as a writer, in order to get through some of the darkest parts of the book. Looking back, I can see that the Aaron and Rusty sections of the book were definitely inspired by the rhythms of stand-up comics, and the mordant tone of certain writers I find funny -- like George Saunders and Sam Lipsyte -- was also an influence. TM: I've never read such a poignant and visceral depiction of grief before -- you show how it dislocates and obliterates us, and you often do that formally, by stopping a sentence midway, for instance, or including many spaces between sentences. A couple of times, you place scenes in columns, so that they appear side-by-side, occurring separately but simultaneously. This formal play surprised and exhilarated me, and it was effective: it truly felt like lived experience to me, and how our brains process trauma. Did you feel like the novel, as it's traditionally written, simply couldn't express what you needed to express? Where in the writing did this experimentation occur, and can you talk about the various approaches and why you took these leaps? DC: I have a classroom exercise for my creative writing students called the “Box Exercise.” I have students create a table with three columns and two rows, exactly the size of an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper. The assignment is that each of the six boxes contains a scene of a story. I wanted to force them to be concise, and to think about the way scenes work together like building blocks. It’s useful for the students to be able to see all the scenes together at once. I was inspired to create the exercise by a couple of things. Firstly, I spent a little time working in a writer’s room for a (failed) TV show, and the process of “breaking story” was fascinating to me, the way we put each individual scene on an index card and pinned it to a bulletin board, so that the story was represented not just in words, but graphically, visually. I was also inspired by a chapter of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” which is rendered as a powerpoint presentation. In any case, I loved the results I got from the students when they did this exercise. By forcing them to work in these very tight, elliptical spaces, the exercise seemed to give them a creative jolt, and I was so taken with it that I started using the exercise myself, during free-writes. Eventually, it became so deeply embedded into the texture of the book that I kept the weird formatting. My editor was a little doubtful about it at first -- and it was an incredible pain in the ass during the typesetting process -- but I’m really happy that we were able to retain it, because I do think it conveys something that couldn’t be expressed in a different way. TM: There were so many memorable names in the novel, like Dustin's cousin named Waverna, who is called Wave when she's younger, and Dustin's son's friend, nicknamed Rabbit, and my favorite: Xzavious Reinbolt, who also goes by...Amy. These names were endlessly delightful to me, and also realistic (I mean, my own name is crazy, right?) Can you talk about naming these characters and how they contribute to the overall tone of the book? DC: I steal names from my students, as you know -- there is a character named Eden in one of the stories in my collection Stay Awake, for example. I also steal from friends and acquaintances, and from my children’s friends, and from random websites. Dusty and Rusty were two kids I knew in grade school, and Rabbit owned a bar that my parents liked to go to. The last name Tillman was taken from the musician Joshua Tillman, who sings under the name Father John Misty. I stumbled across the name Xzavious Reinbolt when I was doing a Google image search for arrest mugshots. Names are weirdly important to me. I want them to be realistic in a way -- to evoke a certain social class and region and time period and mood -- but I also need them to have a music to them, to evoke something that has the quality of a dream or a fable, hopefully without being too cartoonish or distracting. I don’t know if it’s superstition or magic or what, but for me a name somehow breathes life into a puppet, gives shape to an abstraction. The characters often refuse to perform unless they have been properly christened. TM: You were raised in Nebraska and live in Cleveland now, and these are the landscapes in your work. I'm pretty sure I'm one of those latte-drinking, kale-eating coastal elites, and while reading your novel I was reminded that there aren't that many contemporary literary novels set in the places you write about. Or I'm not reading them. There's also a lot of class stuff. There's a great moment when Dustin recalls his wife saying that he wasn't merely unlucky, as he believes, just raised poor -- she says that bad stuff happens to poor people. What's the role of place in your fiction? And how present is class for you, as you're thinking about a character and their sense of themselves in the world? DC: I like kale too, Edan! Especially baby kale, in a smoothie with mango and bananas! But it tastes different in Cleveland than it does in San Francisco. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that social class is actually my big subject. It’s often a dirty word in political discussions, and easy to dismiss when compared to its companion, race. Generally, race is something that can’t be escaped or hidden; class, on the other hand, is a marker that’s far more nebulous, and part of the American delusion, for both the left and the right, is that it can be left behind, slipped out of like a suit of clothes. This is true to some extent, I think. I’m a good example. I was raised in a working class family, and many of my relatives existed below the poverty line -- rural poor, trailer park poor. My mother’s parents lived in a house without an indoor toilet. They had an outhouse. But I am very distant from that world now. I went to college at Northwestern, and the majority of my adult life has been spent in one form or another of middle-class or upper-middle-class life. I’m a college professor, and I earn a good living from my writing as well. I’m a plump, privileged white liberal, and I don’t think you’d be able to tell that I’ve ever been any different. But I feel different. I feel like an imposter a lot of the time. Class means many different things beyond income. It’s an attitude, too: there are people who are “classy,” there’s a way of moving through the world with confidence, an unknowing entitlement. There are people who come from “good families,” whatever their finances say. Class is an invisible tattoo that marks your spirit, and I thought it would eventually go away, but now that I’m in my 50s I’m starting to think it won’t. Dustin’s right: it’s about luck. People who are born comfortable are lucky, but they don’t know it. I have lived among them for more than half my life, and my observation is that there is always a part of them that feels like they deserved it. They don’t even realize how deeply the idea of “meritocracy” is built into their worldview. Even if they would never admit it, they secretly feel that they earned their advantages somehow: poor people were not as smart, not as sensible, not as well-bred. If they just tried a little harder. Well. I did try harder. I threw away everyone I grew up with, gladly. I left for college and never went back, and I pretended to be my own creation, no nature or nurture either, just a self-invented person. See? I’m just like you, readers of The Millions. My life is so different from some of my cousins' lives that we may as well live in different universes, but I achieved that by chopping off big parts of myself. I think those severed limbs are the ghosts that haunt my writing. They come in the form of Rusty, the enraged, dangerous foster kid who is smarter than you, but who was doomed the minute he got dumped out of the womb; they come in the form of Aaron, who has everything he needs for a good, happy life, but runs toward the arms of disaster as if it’s his only true love. They are parts of myself that I have murdered, but they won’t stay buried. They come in the form of Dustin, a man so split from his past life that he can’t even remember it. Whole lives are dedicated to not thinking about something. TM: I usually ask writers in these Millions interviews what the last great book they read was, but since I know you consume not just books passionately, but also music, television, and movies, can you share with us what art and pop culture, of any kind, you've been enjoying lately? DC: The most recent good books I read are Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh and The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz. I just bought John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester. My favorite albums of last year were Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Angel Olsen’s My Woman. I loved the movie Moonlight, and am looking forward to seeing Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele. I am still faithful to the television show The Walking Dead, even though it is often disappointing. I also watch Vikings and the Netflix show Sens8, and yes, Westworld. My favorite podcast of last year was called "In the Dark," produced by APM Reports. As far as video games go, I played Dark Souls III for a while in 2016, but now I am back on Skyrim again.
There’s a wonderful short story collection out now called Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. It’s something of a linked collection, in that the longer stories that make up the bulk of the book all seem to be narrated by the same unnamed woman, formerly of England but now living in a cottage in the west of Ireland, doing not much more than letting her mind wander as she probes the confines of her modest home. These stories do not build upon one another in the sense of creating a continuous plot. Rather, they offer separate investigations into the life of this woman, self-contained and comprehensible in any order. What’s more, between these longer stories sit pieces that might be described as “micro” or “flash” fictions, which are not set in the cottage and are not clearly narrated by the same woman. These shorter pieces are aesthetically linked to the longer stories -- the entire book is written in the same distinctive style of prose -- but are otherwise unrelated. The reading experience is unusual and illuminating, and upon completion I thought to myself, “Wow, what a lovely little collection of stories.” I was flummoxed, then, to discover that there is some confusion as to the book’s genre. Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Pond in The New York Times Book Review appears under the headline “A Debut Novel Traces a Woman’s Life in Solitude.” Novels appear to be O’Rourke’s only points of reference for Bennett’s work. She writes that Pond reminds her of “the kind of old-fashioned British children’s books I read growing up,” and “David Markson’s avant-garde novel ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’...” In another review for The Times, Dwight Garner acknowledges the short story-ness of Bennett’s book even as he insists that the work is a novel: “‘Pond’ is a slim novel, told in chapters of varying lengths that resemble short stories. There’s little in the way of conventional plot.” Hmm. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Garner was describing a short story collection. This phenomenon of misidentifying a story collection as a novel is surprisingly common, both in book reviewing and in polite conversation. A number of people seem to use the term “novel” as a synonym for “book,” and because of this I sometimes see even works of nonfiction referred to as novels. (I won’t call anyone out on this point, since it’s really quite embarrassing.) More often, the word “novel” is applied to collections when all of the stories within feel strongly of a piece (and consequently are favorites of the creative writing workshop). The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is one example. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is another. The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald is a third. To be fair, these works frequently fail to identify themselves with the word “stories” on their book jackets (as does Pond). But a reader with the most basic sense of literary genre should be able to see them for what they are. A novel and a short story collection are very different forms. A novel tells one long narrative. It cannot be divided without surrendering its functionality. Sometimes it is segmented into chapters or sections, but these cannot (at least not all of them) stand alone as shorter independent works. They rely on each other for coherence of plot and theme. A collection, on the other hand, is composed of several shorter, discrete narratives that can stand independently of each other without forsaking their coherence. The order in which you read them is not essential to understanding them, nor would it matter if you read three at random and never looked at the rest. In the hands of a skilled author, it is sometimes true that a group of these stories may become more than the sum of its parts. The stories may act as vignettes in the life of a person or a community, and in so doing produce a sense of immersion somewhat reminiscent of a novel. We call these “linked collections” or “story cycles.” But they are not novels, nor are they attempting to be novels. (A “novel-in-stories,” as you’ve probably suspected, is purely a marketing trick.) When reviewing a linked collection, a reviewer will sometimes (bafflingly) simulate confusion as to whether the book is a collection or a novel or something in between. (Ian Maleney, in his review of Pond for The Millions, says that the book, “rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other.” Nice try, Maleney.) These reviewers often like to pretend that the author has somehow invented a third genre. But you and I aren’t so easily fooled, reader. We know that there is nothing new under the sun. As James Nagel points out in his 2001 book The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle, the form has been with us for a century at least. Works like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time presented a cohesion of intent that, at the time of their publication, tempted reviewers to insist that they must be more than simple collections of stories. (In Our Time even contains interstitial shorts between longer stories, just like Pond.) Nagel writes: [T]he fact of the matter is that the short-story cycle is a rich genre with origins decidedly antecedent to the novel, with roots in the most ancient of narrative traditions. The historical meaning of "cycle" is a collection of verse or narratives centering around some outstanding event or character. The term seems to have been first applied to a series of poems, written by a group of Greek writers known as the Cyclic Poets, that supplement Homer’s account of the Trojan war. In the second century B.C., the Greek writer Aristides wrote a series of tales about his hometown, Miletus, in a collection entitled Milesiaka. Many other early classics also used linked tales, Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Arabian A Thousand and One Nights among them...Throughout these early works two ideas became clear in the concept of a cycle: that each contributing unit of the work be an independent narrative episode, and that there be some principle of unification that gives structure, movement, and thematic development to the whole. Perhaps because the average reader prefers novels, encountering few story collections (or none at all), a linked collection is enough to give him pause. But a linked collection is still a collection and not a novel, just as a tall man is still a man and not an ogre. Our most prestigious American literary prize, the Pulitzer, recognizes this fact. Known for its first three decades of existence as the Pulitzer Prize for a Novel, it was renamed the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948 so that it could be awarded to a debut author named James A. Michener for his Tales of the South Pacific. That book is a linked story collection, though the Pulitzer jury might have gotten away with pretending it was novel if Michener hadn’t conspicuously placed the word “Tales” right in its title. Since then, short story collections have been eligible for the award, though to date only six others have won it. (For the sake of comparison, there have been seven years since 1948 when no prize for fiction was awarded at all.) It may seem defensive or pedantic to insist on these designations. Why does it matter? I hear you ask, reader. Books are just books. No one is saying one form is better than another. All things being equal, perhaps that would be that case, and a book’s genre would be so nonessential as to not require specification. But things, of course, are never equal. It is far easier to publish a novel these days than a collection of short stories, so much so that many pragmatic writers have essentially abandoned the form. Fantastic short story writers end up spending their careers producing middling novels, and our literature is poorer for it. So in those rare cases when a short story collection does manage to be published (and reviewed, and sold, and read by a large number of people), to deny that collection its genre -- to call it a novel, as though the world really needs another novel -- is to rob the medium of short fiction of a hard-earned victory. Even more nefarious is when publishers themselves mislabel collections as novels. Printing the word “novel” on a book cover makes it very difficult for malcontents like me to argue that the book is anything otherwise. Tom Rachman’s excellent 2010 book The Imperfectionists is a collection of 11 self-contained stories following various employees of an international newspaper based in Rome. Only the thinnest of interstitials about the history of the newspaper (again, like In Our Time) provided cause for Dial Press to term the book “a novel.” Also published in 2010 was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which Knopf called “a novel” but which I like to call “the most recent short story collection to win a Pulitzer Prize.” The book’s shifts in point of view, style, tense, and time period caused reviewers to marvel at what a unique and unusual novel it was, though such shifts are common in the genre of the short story collection. Egan almost certainly benefitted from the book being called a novel, but now that the dust has settled and the prize money has been spent, it’s probably in Egan’s best interest that posterity regard the book for what it actually is. Goon Squad is a bad novel, but it’s a phenomenal short story collection, one that perfectly embodies Nagel’s notion of “independent narrative episode[s]” linked by “some principle of unification.” (Plus, thinking of the book as a collection is the only way to make that 70-page Power Point section look like a fun narrative experiment instead of a saccharine bit of self-indulgence. Take that, Egan!) Both The Imperfectionists and A Visit from the Goon Squad were bestsellers, and I certainly don’t begrudge Rachman or Egan their success. What is painful is the notion that the audiences of these books did not realize that they were enjoying story collections. The publishing industry is constantly telling short story writers that their work can’t sell, but instances like these seem to suggest that the publishing industry is not particularly interested in fostering an appetite for short story collections among its readership. If you liked Goon Squad, then you like short fiction, but you may be unaware of that fact because you think that you read novel. It’s refreshing, then, when an author resists the urge to have his work mislabelled as a novel, as Junot Díaz did in the case of This Is How You Lose Her. In an interview with Gina Frangello at The Rumpus, he explains: [T]here’s little question that short stories, like poetry, don’t get the respect they deserve in the culture -- but what can you do? Like Canute, one cannot fight the sea, you have to go with your love, and hope one day, things change. And yes, I have no doubt this book could have been easily called a novel -- novel status has certainly been granted to less tightly-related collections of stories. By not calling this book a novel or a short story collection, I guess I was trying to keep the door open to readers recognizing and enjoying a third form caught somewhere between the traditional novel and the standard story anthology. A form wherein we can enjoy simultaneously what is best in both the novel and the short story form. My plan was to create a book that affords readers some of the novel’s long-form pleasures but that also contains the short story’s ability to capture what is so difficult about being human -- the brevity of our moments, their cruel irrevocability. I disagree with Díaz’s premise that the book represents a new, third form (This Is How You Lose Her is a simply another linked story collection, in the proud tradition of the many linked story collections that have come before it), but you get the point. A linked collection does things that a novel does not, things that are worthy and vital and capable of standing on their own merit. A collection replicates the chaotic, fragmentary messiness of life in a way that a novel can’t: life, which doesn’t follow one large narrative but seems to be the aggregate of many smaller ones. A day is not a chapter. A day is a story, with its own peculiar conflicts, themes, motifs, and epiphanies. There has been much in the past few years to inspire confidence in the idea that the short fiction collection might finally attain the readership it deserves as a indispensable American art form. This Is How You Lose Her was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. In 2013, George Saunders’s Tenth of December repeated both feats. The 2014 National Book Award was given to Phil Klay’s collection Redeployment. In 2015, it went to Adam Johnson’s collection Fortune Smiles. Collections by Nathan Englander and Kelly Link have been finalists for Pulitzers in recent years (though both failed to attain the lofty heights of Michener’s and Egan’s). Alice Munro’s 2013 Nobel Prize felt, for many writers of short fiction, like a long overdue nod to a worthy form and its incorrigible practitioners. And yet short fiction collections remain incredibly difficult to sell. They remain under-published, under-reviewed, and under-read. Aspiring authors are encouraged to set aside their stories and get to work on something longer, lest they be condemned to the periphery of publishing, out in the brambles with the poets and their chapbooks. Even George Saunders, the story writer who famously does not write novels, is writing novels now. Perhaps Claire-Louise Bennett is glad to have Pond called a novel, and I should stop making trouble where trouble needn’t be made. But if the best hope for a short story writer is that reviewers and readers mistake her work for a novel, than fiction has reached a truly dispiriting place. Perhaps novelists will soon be hoping their work is mistaken for memoir, and fiction as a concept will disappear entirely. I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I encourage you, dear reader, to go to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Pond, or any other short story collection, and free yourself from the tyranny of sustained narrative. You’ll enjoy the experience. Trust me. And maybe, while you’re in there, you can hide a couple novels behind the cookbooks.
Reader looke, Not on his Picture, but his Book -- Ben Jonson When I was in my 20s, I used to spend hours at the Strand Bookstore in New York, obsessively gazing at book jacket photos of authors. I was trying to discern something -- A key to genius? Or the mere fact that this lucky person, in this photo, had managed to get a book out into the world? The variations were endless: Here was a classic black-and-white, chin resting on fist. Here was a playful one, slightly off-center. Sexy duck face for a middle-grade children's book...okay. Or, how about this one, gorgeous photo, but one that looked completely different -- like witness protection plan different -- from the author I saw as I sat in the audience at a crowded Barnes & Noble. Or this one: instead of confined to the inner flap, her face on the entire back of the book, where the blurbs would normally be. Was this good? Did this mean the press thought she was such a great writer they wanted everyone to know her? Or, was it like using a pretty face to sell toothpaste? Fast forward a few years on, and I'm finally published. My husband is in grad school, but before that, he'd worked at the venerated publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Knowing my obsession, he would often point out the different FSG authors' pictures, noting how the press often signaled the importance of a book by commissioning one of the well-known author photographers, most famously, Marion Ettlinger, whose black-and-whites portraits are instantly recognizable by the unsmiling, dramatic poses of her subjects, the marmoreal lighting. These could run thousands of dollars for a single image. My first novel came out with Beacon Press, an independent press that published both poet Mary Oliver and the Pentagon Papers; it's owned by the Unitarian Church -- hardly to be faulted for not shelling out big bucks for an author photo. I was lucky enough to use a lovely black-and-white portrait done at MacDowell, an artist's colony. Earlier in my career, when I'd published young adult and middle grade fiction with Houghton Mifflin, my husband took the photos: we'd spent a day running goofily around New York City, occasionally imitating "serious author" poses and cracking up. The ones I submitted had me grinning, in jeans and sneakers sitting by the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. But even though both my novel and children's books came out before social media, I received creepy messages via email and AOL about how "nice" I looked. "You look like a model." I don't look like a model. I am, however, smiling warmly and authentically at my husband and at Joanna Eldredge Morrissey, the MacDowell photographer. A majority of these creeps seemed to be Asian fetishists, and were persistent as barnacles -- one guy stuck with it into the social media age, posting on my Facebook author page how we must meet -- I don't know if he realizes he's in love with a decade-old photo. Funny, yes, but unnerving, especially when the invitations for coffee appear. Sometimes I don't post events because of them. But after being out of the publishing game for more than a decade, it's author photo time! But I have come to wonder if, perhaps, for women, author photos are too often a lose-lose situation. Women are judged -- very often wrongly -- because of their looks. There is no more obvious evidence of how women's looks are "consumed" and "read" by the public than the most recent presidential debate. Donald Trump galumps onto the stage in an ill-fitting suit, hair (if it is, indeed human hair) afrizz, his amorphous horse-fish hybrid face like a genetic engineering experiment gone awry. Hillary Clinton shows up in polished hair and makeup, understated age-appropriate business attire, probably a media consultant's pop of color -- but it's her appearance that becomes the Rorschach blot for an overheated electorate: She smiled too much! She smiled too little! Did she look healthy, sick, or overprepared? Was she going to cough, pundits wondered, breathlessly, while the audience could barely hear Trump through his odd and unsightly sniffling. It's as if we already give any American (white) man the benefit of the doubt in terms of fitting into any narrative, especially one of heroism or competence, but a woman who breaks through always has to be stopped, something must be wrong. Women authors, genius aside, must make sure they are not too old, or too young. Not too serious, but also serious enough. They have to be attractive, but not too attractive; for some reason in men it's dreamy but in women it's suspicious. Take the example of poet Sarah Howe, winning the U.K.'s top poetry prize, the T.S. Eliot, but also nabbing the all-around medal for a trifecta of misogyny, racism, and ageism: "too young, beautiful -- and Chinese"--a bunch of male "critics" (I'm only calling them critics, in that they criticize) seemed to feel someone who looked like that somehow didn't deserve such a storied prize, it had to be rigged! Forget the quality of her work, let's merely assume there must have been "extra-poetic reasons" for the award, such as her being "presentable" ("You look like a model!"). Author photos matter for men, too, but often these are calculated statements, gimmicks to gin up publicity -- the sloe-eyed Truman Capote-as-odalisque portrait was a publicist's dream. Men get to define what being an author is, women have to try conform to an abstraction that sometimes doesn't even include them: when Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer for her wildly inventive A Visit From the Goon Squad, the Los Angeles Times ran the picture they thought best represented the genius novelist: a picture of Jonathan Franzen. In this hyper-exposed age, as authors we're told repeatedly we need a platform, a brand, some way to distinguish us from the swarming thousands of other authors being published each month. But this presenting can get in the way of the solitude that's needed for creation. I'm a creature of the Internet (hence you are reading this), but I've admired Elena Ferrante, the pseudonym of the Italian novelist who wrote the beloved series of Neapolitan novels. She does nary a book festival, a signing. She's stated she needs anonymity and privacy to write; her books are the only public thing about her -- and as book lovers, is there anything more we need? We know how that turned out. Some reporter tracked her down and wrote all about her personal life because he (yes, a he) decided he was somehow entitled to it. And The New York Review of Books (!) decided to publish his findings (a piece I have not read, as I am trying to -- possibly futilely -- keep the "Elena Ferrante" image running in my brain, pristine). Privacy-pro Thomas Pynchon indeed acknowledged the curiosity readers have about authors in his introduction to his 1984 collection, Slow Learner, Somewhere I had come up with the notion that one's personal life had nothing to do with fiction, when the truth, as everyone knows, is nearly the direct opposite. But he's been more or less successful staying a mystery. True, there was a 1996 article in New York Magazine, "Meet Your Neighbor, Thomas Pynchon," that tracked down his supposed address in Manhattan, but what stood out to me in the article was not the exposure but its opposite: how much his putative neighbors were united in the protecting of his privacy, which has been left more or less unmolested for 40-plus years, so much that he was portrayed in an episode of The Simpsons with a bag over his head. Yet for Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend made her a worldwide sensation in 2012. I.e., she enjoyed her anonymity for four, not 40 years before a journalist decided to forcibly rip away her veil of privacy in a way that feels assaultive. Nobody feels Thomas Pynchon owes his public. But Ferrante, how dare she try to keep anything from an inquiring mind! One shudders imagining the secret videos and the doxxing that would occur if Emily Dickinson were living today. Back to author photos. Because I myself enjoying peeking at author photos, I felt it right to update mine for my forthcoming novel. I contacted several photographers, went with a woman who specializes in musicians' headshots, and, because musicians must always be broke, was pleased by her reasonable rates and that she would give me the images to all the photos she took. But, even as I had the photos done in a chilly loft in Chelsea, knowing I was posing for pictures, I didn't feel like I looked like me. I don't wear makeup, that was part of the problem. But it went beyond that. Makeuppy me didn't look like the me who wrote the book. I also didn't want my spouse to take a picture -- I didn't want the self I save for my friends and family out there for public consumption. After what happened to Elena Ferrante, I feel that more than ever. I needed a buffer, a filter, a conception of an author that would be a stand-in for me. Indeed, trying to find a platonic ideal of author photo made me recall my friend Monique Truong's portrait for her first novel, The Book of Salt. I know what my friend looks like. But her Marion Ettlinger portrait somehow embodied the novel in an artful, ineffable way. When I asked her about the process, she said, indeed, what was funny was that the photo -- the one I liked so much -- was not the one she liked the best. Her editor chose it, which made her realize, in retrospect, "An author photo is a marketing tool, like the cover of your book. In that way, there's necessarily a disconnect between it and you." Ben Harnett, my friend on Twitter, has an ongoing art-project where he creates watercolors of Twitter avatars, many of them writers. I was curious if that would work. It took a while -- he has a long waiting list. I loved it, but still felt it was a little too me, i.e., the private me. Then I did a reading that was attended by author-artist Kate Gavino, whose tumblr, "Last Night's Reading" (and book of the same name) showcases her unique talent of making a quick, almost crayon-y sketch of the author during a reading, and pulling out an interesting quote. She's profiled everyone from Amy Bloom to Zadie Smith. I was excited to appear there, too, and after first admiring the quote she picked -- "I write slowly because I have to fail in every single way possible before I get it right" -- I kept looking at the picture. I'm not smiling or frowning but something in-between -- it seems just right. I've started using it as my "official" author photo, and the responses I've gotten have ranged from "Can you send something a little less weird?" to "I love it!" to quiet acceptance. To me, it's the perfect image, one that includes a very simplified sketch of a necklace made of coconut shell, purchased in Key West when I was there finishing my novel. I didn't know the artist was going to be there that night, that she caught the necklace, and my beloved glasses (another story), made it perfect, landed it somewhere between a Ben Jonsonish no-photo and wearing a sandwich board with my face on it. Occupy author photo! Image Credit: Flickr/Christopher Dombres.
In the late 12th century, the father of teenage Leonardo Fibonacci takes him off the North African streets and sets him at the feet of gruff Arab tutors. They can’t help it -- they like the kid, who they can tell is going to be a nightmare until they agree to teach him the Art of Nine Symbols. Back in Pisa, Fibonacci discovers an axiomatic sequence in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21). The corresponding ratio describes the pleasing spiral he’s been staring at all day -- it just looks right. Eight hundred years later, a creative-writing student drafting a story is told it might help to draw its plot. And there it is. (See figure A.) Structure Here come the metaphors. John McPhee compares writing a story to prepping a meal, and to the gathering -- crystallizing -- of salt underground. His essay, “Structure,” traces the Continental Divide, pulls on “chronological drawstrings,” and knits the presumed narrative scarf from the “threads” everyone keeps talking about. McPhee encourages students to diagram a story as “a horizontal line with loops above and below it to represent the tangents along the storyline, a circle with lines shooting out of it that denote narrative pathways…” (See Figure B.) The rhetorical free-for-all disguises the wide influence of the gist -- the anatomy of storytelling. Speaking of stories, “the shape of the curve is what matters,” says Kurt Vonnegut. Whereas Gustav Freytag’s muse was, sadly, a triangle, the sign and symbol of Fibonacci-McPhee is more like a map. But they’re manifestations of the same idea: of stories seeking, building, bending like a river, or anyways conceived of less as an appeal to a reader than as science-ish fieldwork. This definition of structure -- indeed any definition of it -- begs the question: What if structure is not that geometric or quite so cosmic or even, according to an au courant diagnosis, “televisual?” What if structure consists of questions themselves and not strictly the objects of those questions with which plotting is synonymous: A dead body. An excess of suitors. “A fully armed and operational battle station.” Stories posit a teller in the service of the told, who are now able to, if they must, rate that service with a fractional number of stars. But the novel especially is a kind of hopeless democracy of two. An author and a reader staring at the same machine -- the same story -- not sure if and when it worked. Two privileged children -- serialized TV and narrative nonfiction -- have done so well for themselves that they should have laid the framework bare. But an erudite incoherence about structure is the rule. One thing for sure is that structure’s an anxiety, about a better way to tell a story, and surer proof of our discernment -- that we get it. And so the idea of order in nature settles the nerves. The golden spiral is in the leaves, in shells -- in stories? The Fibonacci-McPhee Sequence Early on in Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire there’s a transition in point of view, from William -- scion, dilettante, and ex-singer in a punk band -- to a blank-slate teen, Charlie, as he removes from its sleeve “the first Ex Post Facto LP from ’74.” This raised my hackles -- though perhaps I should admit to having the quick-trigger hackles of someone with too many bookmarks in too many novels, not to mention paused places in the middle of episode three of season two, etc. Along with the ambitious size of the book, the coincidences of City on Fire have been well scrutinized: “…overstuffed with characters, and the lines of action uniting them fray to the point of breaking;” “overuse of chance discoveries of buried evidence.” There’s a wariness about what exactly the novel’s up to, despite the fact that just a little later it more or less tells you. In what is either a cool nod to, or a hearty embrace of, genre convention, Charlie’s crush, Samantha Cicciaro, is mysteriously shot. But thereafter the book occupies itself less with whodunit than with the shots’ sound waves ringing out into the night, washing over 10 other characters and, in a quantum-mechanical whisper, telling them that no one is alone. City on Fire is a needle threaded between conventional plotting and ambitious “structure.” It finds itself among contemporary novels exhibiting an inflated sense of connection -- storytelling in a kind of horoscopic style. It’s always been an odd thing to chalk up to a matter of belief: that one reader’s definition of a story is to another not a story at all. In a twist you would have never seen coming, “narrative architecture” becomes our term for what’s not necessarily there. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. -- Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science” We have no idea what we’re talking about when we talk about structure. The following terms were used to describe the structure of narratives bearing the mark of horoscopic style (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, City on Fire, and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s TV adaptation Game of Thrones): “stereoscopic,” “televisual,” “kaleidoscopic,” “unfilmable” -- at least before the film. These structures were “non-linear,” “multi-head,” “multi-thread,” “rhizomatic,” “fragmented” -- this last appearing so often that I had to wonder just what constitutes whole, homogeneous storytelling. What was it about these structures that was so “innovative” and “experimental?” Or, for that matter, “soap operatic” and “ruthless?” To wit, Cloud Atlas is defined by “mapping” and “maplessness.” Its structure is “cool.” Here’s what happens: The novel’s five story lines culminate palindromically in one central section before the stories pick up in reverse order in the second half of the book (A, B, C, D, E, F, E, D, C, B, A). But that’s not what’s happening. Circumstantially, the story lines are connected by a birthmark, and, thematically, by music. The Five Narratives are also connected by the fact that Mitchell wrote them impeccably and, in accordance with genre, faithfully. It is said that the author pulled it off by “immersing himself in the different narratives one at a time, even keeping them in different ‘folders.’” Here is structure conflated with something more like process -- the scout’s knot tying oneself to a chair. The story is a function of the author’s method of organizing for himself. McPhee describes his own use of Nabokovian note cards: “Then I move the cards around to see where I’m going to find a good structure, a legitimate structure.” It seems fair to ask: Who’s immersing whom here? Shall we perhaps hold each part of the story and think about whether or not it brings us joy? These are the perils of “world-building.” A Game of Thrones episode marks time by cutting to each of its story lines, from Winterfell to Meereen, ne’er betraying a particular imperative to move the story in any direction but between. There’s a similar call-sheet structure to A Visit from the Goon Squad (the aforementioned rhizome); in her review, Sarah Churchwell sums up horoscopic style quite nicely: Egan’s vision of history and time is also decidedly, and perhaps reassuringly, cyclical: the impacts these characters have upon each other are engineered not by coincidence but by connectedness itself, as the people we bump against and bang into become the story of our lives. Not coincidentally, here is how Hallberg describes his intrepid journalist character: “A receiver. A connector. A machine made exactly for this.” Let us remember our Borges: that absolutely accurate “Map of the Empire” is torn to faded shreds, except, perhaps, where it showed us those places we’d put down our novels. Granted, these books are in almost every way excellent; Egan, Mitchell, and Hallberg are genius naturalists. Capable of invoking anything -- any clipper ship or anxiety or rhododendron. But that kind of genius can be difficult to distinguish from a painterly need to get into the corners of the frame. Structure should be instrumental to a thing’s use; a handle for the writer’s talent. And yet the imperial cartographer’s exactitude somehow became a suitable answer for how to keep a reader in thrall. These novels have been praised for, among other things, ambition, inventiveness, and that they are, but what connects them more than anything else is that they’re romantic about structure. The least we could do is to stop insisting that we’re all referring to the same thing. Which is, generally, convention. Structure is nearly synonymous with aiming for the cheap seats of genre, where the detective and the wizard and the submissive sit together and watch the game. We’ve come to regard suspense as a market force -- an outline in chalk with which to take ingenious exception. And so we’re flush with cool hybrids. MacArthur fellows take on zombies; Ursula K. Le Guin gatekeeping Kazuo Ishiguro; a market for post-apocalypse in full bloom. But whenever much attention is paid to exceptions to the rule, one can only assume the rules are very clear. I’m speaking of genre, but also rent. Writing to market or furiously curating a social media platform are seen as considerations on the level of food on the table. A cottage industry in semi-pro writing has met popular -- and extremely earnest -- demand. In this sense, horoscopic style is both product and allergy to the “tools” of the craft industry; links to a “weak verb converter;” intensive three-day seminars for the low, low price of $995 for tuition and Final Draft software. If our entertainments were piles of San Andrean rubble, wouldn’t we know? Perhaps, but structure has a way of passing itself off as an answer to the very question it presents -- it’s what works. “You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages,” McPhee writes. And the other way? “Listeners, we are currently fielding numerous reports that books have stopped working.” -- Welcome to Night Vale, “Station Management” “Fiction is the posing of narrative questions,” is actually something the writer David Lipsky has said aloud on multiple occasions. Lipsky teaches a class of singular usefulness, from which I basically repeat back lessons in a dazed monotone. Men call him Lipsky, and women call him David. We were of one mind to get a good seat, and another to duck and scribble. In class, Lipsky calls on people, a barbaric pedagogic practice literally frowned upon by most of us, and what’s more, there was a preponderance of correct answers -- never a drawing. The idea was that story -- or, synonymously -- structure, is no more and no less than to ask the reader leading questions in the hopes of interesting them. Of a given character -- will she or won’t she be fired, loved, caught, absolved? In the end, the class was approximately half Immunes, with the other half wearing white smocks sporting one of David’s terms of art printed in bold: withheld data. No one likes to be asked what the story’s about. But Lipsky was never referring to the about of the abstract painting or the period of the historical novel. Nothing was an allegory of post-whatsit America. He meant: a girl is trying to fit in at a private school. Or: those letters were forged. And once the story’s little knife is stowed, and a quorum had nodded or squinted or furrowed, he would say ask us to make an annotation in the margin: If a particular story, once begun, should find itself resolved, another story has to take the baton. Now and then I’ll read a novel by a writer who seems to have bought in. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is a novel in two -- the technical term here would be “parts.” Groff sets up the reader for any number of things -- matriarchs withholding approval; a million-dollar bet on the marriage of an implausibly successful playwright to an “Ice queen from nowhere.” Readers will note the use of brackets. Nowhere-ian royalty Mathilde is “pretending to be faithful. [perhaps not].” Groff has referred to these bracketed asides as a “Greek chorus,” but what they are really is an efficient method of opening up dramatic-ironic gaps -- questions. “She couldn’t know, he thought. [She did!]” Ironically it’s the alternatives to “narrative architecture” that can seem a little bloodless and technical. Structure, to George Saunders, consists of “tools with which to make your audience feel more deeply.” These being tools at anyone’s disposal, no matter how inconveniently literary. After all, there are high stakes in life as it is ordinarily lived, which is to say, pitched anxiously between desire and embarrassment. A story that works makes room for the possibility that it won’t. “It wouldn’t have to be good,” says the imperious, soon-wedded older sister in Rebecca Curtis’s “The Toast.” It just “needs to be appropriate.” And yet there are some of us who wouldn’t be caught dead using a “tool.” We might keep it in the drawer by the bed, but what writer told to tell their story, find their own voice -- “in order to live” -- would want to feed it through “clunky machinery.” Who Cares? Case Studies About Star Wars: The Force Awakens, critics had 8, 10, 11, 18, 32, 43, and 77 “questions,” 6 of which were of the “big” variety, 11 of which were size “huge.” And 7, 15, 17, and 25 questions had gone exasperatingly “Unanswered.” Question in this context means “plot hole,” of which 5, 9, 40 (and “20 more” on top of that) were “unforgivable.” Admittedly, some of the enumerated are more like inconsistencies -- does one need a map to reach coordinates in space? -- but many of these questions are entirely intentional plot devices. Where is Luke Skywalker? gets you the movie. Rey’s parentage gets you all three. To be clear, the notable equivalence here is between functional storytelling and the galling lack thereof. It’s hard to say just how this happens, but there might be a clue on the white smock, a variation on the lover’s quarrel: What’s the difference between not telling and a lie? One more case study from the relevant world: Serial. When it became clear that a radio documentary had become a blockbuster, that people loved this murder, Sarah Koenig, it seems, felt herself painted into an ethical corner. Here she is, bristling at the notion of enacting “suspense,” with the NYT Magazine’s question in bold: But the podcast is a hybrid of journalism and entertainment. You have a lot of information, and it seems you’ve structured it for maximum suspense. I don’t think that’s fair…To us, it didn’t feel that different from a really long magazine story or -- you know, any story that you would take care in structuring. In the very first episode, Koenig describes Adnan Syed ’s mild manner -- he doesn’t seem like a vicious psychopath. “I know, I’m an idiot,” says Koenig, her tone pitched to effective self-deprecation. Koenig knows that 12 podcast episodes won’t decide whether in fact evil is human or inhuman. (Not even Janet Malcolm knows: “The concept of the psychopath is, in fact, an admission of failure to solve the mystery of evil -- it is merely a restatement of the mystery.”) If not “suspense,” Koenig admits to “structuring.” But this distinction doesn’t hold up to scrutiny -- not that I question whatsoever Koenig’s integrity. Actually, Serial is too good, and too intelligently structured for her to have a leg to stand on. “I’m an idiot” is a play for identification. (“Silly me.” -- Season Two.) This line -- about looking into Adnan’s big brown eyes -- is right there in the script where, perhaps, there could have been a breakdown of cell-phone tower data (and after a useful delay of an episode or two, a questioning of its accuracy). I have little doubt about which was the better choice. When David Remnick asks Koenig about her method, she says, “I think I’m trying to convey that you can trust me because I’ve done my homework.” And in this sentiment, she sounds a lot like David Lipsky (“Bond with your reader. Tell them honest things.”). This trust is also a kind of structuring -- I know, I’m an idiot. But there are a lot of stories out there, and we tend to pick the one that looks us in the eye and asks, maybe a little preposterously, Can I tell you a secret? Koenig is then asked about decisions she made with Serial’s decidedly unpatented voice. Co-producer Julie Snyder levels with her after an unsatisfying cut: Edit after edit after edit…“It’s not working…It’s not good. I need to know what you -- Sarah Koenig -- make of all this. Otherwise I don’t care. I don’t know why you’re telling me all this...You need to make me care.” I was quite uncomfortable with that initially, but then I realized…That’s the thing that’s going to make you listen to the stuff I think is important. If that sounds a lot like “Keep your eye on the ball,” you’re not wrong. But rest assured that our culture-making class hadn’t even thought of the ball much less kept an eye on it. (See: testaments to their confidence approximately everywhere you look.) Koenig’s discomforted by the idea that making someone else care is indistinguishable from selling it to them. To name just a few of the principled stands against Caring What Anyone Else Thinks: morning pages and the art-therapy discipline; The Compulsive’s Way -- simply not being able to stop; “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching,” or art as vocation (“I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present.” -- Elena Ferrante, not on Twitter). This has to do with one’s basic orientation as an author: Is art a means to cultivate or to reach? And if you must insist on writing, I have to ask -- just how acutely do you feel the need to be borne witness to? Because a singular question harries stories at every turn, echoing the unminced words at the Serial editing bay: What is any of this for? Inevitably, the answer occurs somewhat too late: Making someone else care is the highest commandment of structure. Which is why, after the remedial instruction, almost all of what David Lipsky does is prose tips. The theory being that thinking unapologetically in terms of setting things up and paying them off frees the writer to devote themselves otherwise to sentence-making. The syllabus, with few exceptions, is composed of those writers who can really launch ships prose-wise: David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Vladimir Nabokov, Zadie Smith. In fact, the “system” -- would that it were my own batch of Kool-Aid -- kinda dead-ends at despairingly scintillating talent. But generally speaking that talent is not responsible for America’s mass-market mysteries on short flights; or that which manages to hit her dull and chipped funny bone; or sate her great appetite for vanilla S&M and truer detectives. A working fallacy results. Tent poles such as Game of Thrones, The Marvel Universe -- they have a kind of ideological monopoly on What happens next? But the more we accept the premise that what succeeds in the market works, the easier it is to convince ourselves that the market itself strives to give us the culture we need. [It doesn’t.] The challenge for lit is the same for our culture at large from here on: distinguishing the market’s products from actual voices. “Implausibility is part of the design.” -- Louis Menand, “The Time of Broken Windows” It’s not that Hallberg commits the ordinary fictional sin of superimposing a false meaning on his novel, which is ultimately just as believable as a line drawn to connect any one thing to another. City on Fire may be elaborately plotted, and a story richly told, but it is not given, not structured for us. Though, we can easily exaggerate the author’s sacrifice. It’s not quite walking in front of a tank; maybe more like picking up a shift. A sense of the uncanny, of a kind of empathic genius at work, is as essential an aspect of reading as structure, but most readers, I think, experience design as unforeseen plausibility. Some things do work every time. For example, I go to the physical bookstore and get the “ambitious” book over and over, like Charlie Brown when Lucy promises to hold the football but instead of a football it’s that thing when The Times runs a review by Michiko Kakutani in the daily and then another on Sunday. Tour de force in hand, I go home and read the first chapter with a sheepish sense of my own demography. Along those lines, I can imagine how refining the concept of narrative structure must seem a split-hair, just another narcissistically small difference. Dirty tomatoes and organic stories at $26/lb -- not those factory-farm stories wrapped in pink blood on a bed of Styrofoam. But in the bathwater of authenticity are plenty of real distinctions -- I’m looking at you, Texas barbecue, starting a band, and the notion of a high literature that tells “honest things.” Whenever I hear that triumphalism -- lines grayed, blurred away! -- I find myself fondly missing the clarity of differences. If you divide ten thousand by forty-one, you get two hundred and forty-three, which is Cascadia’s recurrence interval...That timespan is dangerous both because it is too long -- long enough for us to unwittingly build an entire civilization on top of our continent’s worst fault line -- and because it is not long enough. -- Kathryn Schulz, “The Really Big One” This is where it seems as if I should offer some kind of agnostic politesse. Endorse a descriptivism of storytelling -- all structures are “legitimate.” Any structure that makes you happy. “You don’t choose it so much as it chooses you,” says Carmine Cicciaro, Samantha’s father. It’s always tempting to side with anti-dogmatism. But I can’t do that. Because, what if there is a moral to this story? Structure abides. Ex Machina’s key cards and power-outs; Groff’s unreliable Rashomon-esque narrators of sex after marriage. An out-of-print novelist sees a picture of Britney Spears exiting a restaurant holding a pack of cigarettes, her phone, “and then she’s got my second book.” (“Case #2: Britney”– Mystery Show.) But it is literary reporting that has pretty much become structure’s standard bearer. In Rachel Aviv’s “Where Is your Mother?”, a healthy child cries in an empty apartment, and dust plumes off the bed. “I was born overseas,” the mother says, and nothing else. In “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield,” Daniel Engber asks “What if D.J. had a private chamber in his head, a place where grown-up thoughts were trapped behind his palsy?” Story writes itself, as they say. [Nope.] Then again, a sound almost like clockwork accompanies Kathryn Schulz writing of sixth-century tsunamis, barking dogs ahead of the wave, and a number: 243. In the first few paragraphs of these stories, it feels as if inspiration taken from McPhee’s looping squiggles was only ever as important as his old-hand assurance that the storytelling principle is ethically OK in “narrative nonfiction” or where’s-the-line journalism. I’m not so worried about some moralizing theory of declining attentions spans -- our “distraction.” In fact, nothing could distract me from another form of anxiety: I desperately want to pay relentless attention to only the few, mattering things. Structure, truly evident, directs that attention. If stories are a means to tell us what you “think is important,” then by all means. The policy of bracing honesty has these lesser known clauses: that you have to figure out what most needs to be said, and why anyone should want to hear you say it. If you happen to read pop physics, there’s what’s called the “observer effect.” Any observation affects the experiment (the “collapse of the wave function” -- what happens emerges from a prior limbo of possibilities). The observer effect also applies to the question of structure and the black box of process: none of it works, because it cannot be verifiably shown to have done what it intended to do. Writing is nothing until the precise moment the reader intuits a meaning. I want to tell you something. I can draw the map. Only you can tell me if it goes anywhere. Say the word.
For the first five months of this year I was too deliriously happy to pay much attention to anyone’s written words, including my own. I was pregnant, due in August. Though I knew when our daughter was born I’d read and write much less for a while, focusing my time and energy on her, I made only halfhearted stabs at parenting literature both practical (Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé) and philosophical (Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work). I gave up on other literature almost entirely. Most of what I read those months I read on the August 2015 Babycenter.com birth board, where other mothers with babies expected the same month as mine gathered to share their weird anxieties and basic biological ignorance. I forget now too much of what it felt like to be cheerfully, healthily pregnant with that so loved, so desired child. But I remember the Babycenter posts of other women like scraps of weird poetry recited in old dreams: will Kraft mac and cheese / make my kid dumber? If you live in a haunted house while pregnant / will your baby be the ghost reincarnated? We found out it was a girl and / my husband went outside to vomit. Our daughter was not born in August. Her heart developed weirdly, wrongly, and she was stillborn in May. For the past six months I’ve been tending not to the baby I’d anticipated, but to the sorrow of having lost her, as tangible and time-consuming a presence as any tiny person. To say I’ve been miserable this year is both overstatement and understatement -- because I have many good days, more good days than bad ones, and yet when the bad ones arrive they can sometimes seem so dark as to be almost unendurable. To endure them, I read. I read Edith Wharton, detective novels, memoirs by chefs. The Night Circus. Frankenstein. Elena Ferrante, who left me embarrassingly cold. (As if grief were not isolating enough, I am apparently the only literary feminist of my acquaintance who is inexplicably immune to Ferrante Fever). I read the copy of Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time that my wonderful agent sent me -- a witty, absorbing book in which no one feels too bad for too long. P.G. Wodehouse, Meg Wolitzer, Nancy Mitford, countless YA novels, cookbooks, chick lit. The Middlesteins. Dept. of Speculation. Rules of Civility. A Visit from the Goon Squad. In every one of these books I looked for, and in nearly all I found, shades of the awful, comforting truth: everyone despairs; nearly everyone survives. Some books were more explicit about this than others, and these I devoured, though reading them felt sometimes like pressing down hard on a bruise. Matthew Baker’s melancholy and clever middle grade novel, If You Find This, follows a young narrator who confides in a tree in his backyard that he believes contains the soul of his stillborn brother -- I waited anxiously for another character to disabuse him of this notion, but, kindly, no one ever does. Elizabeth McCracken’s story collection Thunderstruck captures the mundane and the surreal of grief, such as “the people who believed that not mentioning sadness was a kind of magic that could stave off the very sadness you didn’t mention -- as though grief were the opposite of Rumpelstiltskin and materialized only at the sound of its own name.” Before this year, such a sentence might not have even registered with me -- but by the time I read it, a few weeks after my daughter’s death, after the initial rally of support gave way to a lot of uncomfortable silence, I heard in it the delicious snap of truth. (I’m still reading, very slowly, McCracken’s memoir of her own stillbirth, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, and have never felt so grateful for a book I’m too tender, most days, to open). And for the first time, I waded my way through T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, a more haunting book than I’d expected, in which Merlyn prescribes for Wart the best cure for sadness: “Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.” I’d found my way to White through Helen Macdonald’s beautiful H Is for Hawk, a book that’s part hawking manual, part literary biography of T.H. White, and part meditation on grief. Macdonald writes about her experience training a goshawk, one of nature’s most vicious predators, in the wake of her father’s death; she interweaves this narrative with one of White’s own emotional pain and falconry. It’s a strange book -- crisply written, funny, and wrenching, unlike anything I’ve ever read before. But this year, it also happened to be intensely familiar to me. “There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things,” Macdonald writes. “And then there comes a day when you realize...that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses.” Like Macdonald, my loss made me feel disconnected from the world I’d once inhabited. I thought of myself as a Grief Monster: a creature too sad and angry to be rightly categorized as human, unable to appreciate simple pleasures, sent into a tailspin at the sight of other mothers’ healthy babies. I could not imagine feeling normal around other people again; I could not imagine wanting to. Macdonald channeled her Grief Monsterhood into the wild, into her hawk, longing somewhat more than wistfully to achieve the bird’s isolation, her self-sufficiency. It doesn’t work that way, Macdonald finds, nor should it: “Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.” Even before I was pregnant with her, when she was nothing more or less than a dream my husband and I shared of a cozy, sunny future, we’d given our first child a code name: Hawkeye. It was partly a nod to the Marvel superhero as written by Matt Fraction, mostly an homage to my husband’s love for M*A*S*H. We called her Hawk for short. We figured when she was born we’d give her a “real” name; we had one chosen and ready, but through what we then considered silly superstition, we never said it out loud much. When she died, it became impossible to think of her as anything but Hawk -- impossible to separate the real, sweet, three-pound baby we’d held for a few quiet hours early on a morning in May from her infinite and unrealized potential. We’d imagined too many happy possibilities for the girl with the other name. For ourselves. So Hawkeye was the name we shared with the diplomatically unperturbed nurse who asked; Hawkeye was the name we wrote on the death certificate. Hawk is the name we call her still and always. It’s a word that can’t help but mean more to me now. Bird, daughter. Love, loss. Despair. Survival. Losing Hawk helped me understand that I remain stubbornly, sublimely human even when I’m hurting. Thanks to H Is for Hawk, her name reminds me that I want to be. Macdonald writes of dreams she’d had after her father died, anxious dreams in which a hawk glided out of her sight: I had thought for a long while that I was the hawk -- one of those sulky goshawks able to vanish into another world, sitting high in the winter trees. But I was not the hawk, no matter how much I pared myself away, no matter how many times I lost myself in blood and leaves and fields. I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return. 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Like a lot of the people I know these days who grew up wanting to be writers, I learned how to write by reading the Internet. I graduated from college with a degree in capital-L Literature, but by the time I was 23, my major sources of inspiration were blogs and online fiction magazines. I found my voice (or at least a voice) by imitating bloggers no one had ever heard of, and publishing on websites few people would ever read. This suited me -- I liked the isolated weirdness of writing into the infinite void of the web. It didn’t matter to me that no one answered back. Some time between then and now, businesses with real money caught on to writing on the Internet, discovered it could be made scaleable, and everything changed. For many of my writer friends, this change was a net positive. Suddenly there was money in writing; in some cases, lots of it. The possibility of a “piece” going viral also meant the possibility of a job for pay at a real publication, or a book deal, or a mention in The New York Times, or any number of other writerly blessings. At the same time, wanting to make a career in letters and not being on Twitter and Facebook -- that is, not wanting to share your work constantly with the strangers you met on airplanes and in restaurants and people you hadn’t seen since seventh grade -- became the equivalent of not actually wanting to be a writer at all. For extroverts and writers with surplus self-assurance this didn't pose a problem. For those of us drawn to writing because it was the one job that wouldn’t require us to talk to people regularly, it was a nightmare. “Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life,” wrote Leon Wieseltier last month in his call to arms against the threat technology poses to humanism. “Among the Disrupted” sparked a heated debate among its readers, or at least, as heated as can reasonably be expected in the letters section of the New York Times Book Review. As one critic pointed out, there are plenty of more urgent issues for all of us to ponder, child poverty and the pay gap among them. What struck me, though, wasn’t the essay’s hyperbole, but the inaccuracy of its target. The problem facing writers now isn’t the growing prominence of tech, but the question of how deeply the two fields are intertwined, and what that relationship means. Most of the notable works of fiction published in recent years (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven spring immediately to mind) present thoughtful considerations of the evolving relationship between the self and technology, and a lot of the people who read these books probably read them on the Kindle app. The same people who subscribe to Harpers read work published by the Atavist and curated by Longform. I’m writing right now in the notepad app on my iPhone, and you’re reading on your computer or your iPad or your own phone. How many writers do you know at this point who don’t have their own websites, Tumblrs, or blogs? For that matter, how many do you know who aren’t on Twitter? Still, it’s true that while the Internet augmented journalism, creating jobs for newcomers and inventing new forms for them to occupy, it didn’t do the same for fiction. Atavist Books confirmed last fall that it would no longer be taking new submissions, and Byliner was folded into Vook last September. Amazon’s e-books are popular, but more innovative forms of digital literature don’t seem to be. Meanwhile, more and more often, walking into library near the office building where I work in Los Angeles feels like walking into a museum. Untouched contemporary novels line the shelves, positions unchanged. The few people in the reading room are, to a person, on laptops or on their phones. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End. We’ve taken his directive and run with it, to the point where we talk about disconnecting -- going off Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Venmo, whatever -- in the same wistful tones we once used to talk about going on vacation. Social media, like literary fiction, allows us briefly, to inhabit a consciousness outside our own: on Facebook, we experience the highs and lows of strangers in real time through the same lens of authenticity that marks work by writers like Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti. If these platforms give every one of us both an audience and a show on demand, at any given moment, and for free, then what is there left for fiction to do? Curious about how all of this was affecting those most likely to suffer from its consequences, I reached out to novelists in my Twitter timeline to find out what they thought about the role of social media -- specifically Twitter -- in their own writing lives. I expected all three of them to share my own anxieties -- my view of the world has more in common with Wieseltier’s than I am, perhaps, ready to accept -- and I was surprised when not one of them did. Roxane Gay contributes reviews and cultural criticism to high-profile outlets regularly, edits multiple literary journals, and works as a professor at Purdue. She tweets prolifically to her 54,000 and counting followers, and engages with many of them directly. Last year, her essay collection, Bad Feminist, and her novel, An Untamed State, both dropped at the same time, to widespread acclaim. “Many of my essays begin as conversations on Twitter, where I am thinking through something that’s happening in our culture,” Gay wrote me, adding that she uses Twitter “to be alone while feeling less lonely.” “Ninety percent of the time,” Gay wrote, “I'm having delightful conversations and interactions on Twitter. There's little to dislike.” Amelia Gray, author of Threats and the forthcoming Gutshot, responded that Twitter “has been more beneficial to my creativity than most theory,” adding, “It’s a little corner of the world that is a pure ball-pit.” She went on, “My tweets and my fiction ideally share the same precision. They share a sense of character too, though rarely the same character. I use different social media towards different ends, and in that way I have different Internet personas and also a real persona which is different here and there.” Porochista Khakpour is an essayist and fiction writer and the author of, most recently, The Last Illusion. Last year one of her tweets caught the attention of Slate, landing her timeline a mention in The New York Times Book Review. She often writes, more or less jokingly (I think?), about being enslaved to Twitter, but when I wrote to ask her about the relationship between the site and her work, she wrote back, “I think I am beneficial and destructive to my own creativity and ability to be productive. I am the problem!” She described her relationship to Twitter as, “Love/hate, but tbh mostly love. And we all know love hurts, love bleeds, love kills, love is a battlefield, etc.” A blogger friend of mine once called social media a loneliness eliminator and I have to admit that definition makes me uneasy. What about those of us who like being lonely? What if loneliness is, in some ways, necessary? It’s true though, that, soon enough, this conversation will likely be irrelevant. Twitter and Facebook will dissolve into the digital slurry, only to be replaced by some other technology as incomprehensible to us as texting once was to our grandparents. Consider Vine, currently churning out new waves of celebrities that no one over 27 has ever heard of. Maybe six-second videos will become the new Twitter, which is the new Facebook, which was the new books. Or maybe, by this time next year, we’ll be having this same conversation about yet another new technology we can never remember how we lived without. Meanwhile, as these writers make clear, fiction writers will continue to adapt, and books, while they may be still hanging on by a thread, will hang on nonetheless. Something I’m starting to suspect is that it’s everything I worry will make books obsolete -- their slowness, the investment of time they require, and their inability to do anything other than the singular purpose for which they’ve been created -- that has allowed them to survive for this long. Social media lends itself best to chronicling discrete instances: bursts of anger, flashes of surprise. Built on the notion, even on a micro scale, of constant disruption, our feeds and streams can’t cohere for long enough to bleed seamlessly into one another the way actual sentences do. Twitter and Facebook are great for quick blasts of dopamine or adrenaline, but not for creating sustained waves of happiness or fear or maintaining the kind of cumulative tension upon which good stories rely. “Only connect!” Forster wrote, but he also wrote, “Live in fragments no longer.” Human experience is like a Georges Seurat in that it only comes into focus the further away you get from it. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram regurgitate the present back to us in easily manageable pieces that delight, spark envy, disdain, boredom, revulsion, or inspiration. What they can’t do, however, is take a wider scope. Its novels we depend on to reorganize those scattered fragments into something whole. Image Credit: Pixabay.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. You are Katherine Heiny, and when you’re 24, you write a second-person short story for an MFA creative writing workshop at Columbia University¬ -- “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” about a graduate student who is secretly in love with her male roommate -- and you send it out to 31 literary journals, all of which turn it down. One editor writes you a harsh note, attacking the story as indicative of what is wrong with MFA programs and saying that your story demonstrates you have nothing to say. When you tell a friend that no one wants your story, she asks you what The New Yorker said about it. You admit you have not sent it to that magazine, and your friend laughs. She says you were supposed to start with The New Yorker. So, on a Thursday, you send the story there, and the next day Roger Angell, the fiction editor, calls you -- early enough that he wakes you up -- and says he wants to publish it. You do not believe him: you are a poor grad student, behind on your rent, and you think the caller is really your landlord trying to trick you into talking to him. And you doubt the magazine reads stories so quickly. But it really is Roger Angell, and the story appears in the September 1992 issue of The New Yorker. Half-a-dozen years later, the magazine reprints it in an anthology, Nothing But You. Your name is in the table of contents between Jean Rhys and John Cheever. That story helps you get an agent, but you and she later part ways and it takes more than 20 years before you finally publish, at age 47, a book under your own name, a collection of stories called Single, Carefree, Mellow. You are elated you have a book out in the world, but then the book brings you significant attention, especially for a debut collection of short stories. A month before its publication, Entertainment Weekly runs a half-page interview with you in a piece about books the magazine’s editors are anticipating for the year. Glamour and Elle exhort their readers to buy it. On Super Bowl Sunday, The New York Times reviews it, calling it a “wry, bittersweet debut,” and saying the work is “something like Cheever mixed with Ephron.” The next day the newspaper publishes a long feature on you and the book. When the reporter talks about your first publication in The New Yorker, she describes your start as “explosive” and adds that, because of your “disappearance from the literary scene for nearly two decades,” your story carries a whiff of legend, but is actually “more prosaic and compelling.” The truth is, however, that although the work that followed your first story did not get the same attention as “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” you did not, of course, disappear. You were just continuing to live your life and write -- write a lot. It was just that most people did not notice. 2. When you were growing up, you were different in some crucial ways from everyone else in your family, who are all scientists. You were raised in Midland, Mich., home of Dow Chemical, and your mother was a chemist, your father a chemical engineer. One of your brothers is also a chemical engineer, and the other one a software engineer, but you say, “My math and science grades were, well, let’s just say that I may have been the wrong baby brought home from the hospital.” You “read like crazy,” reading every sort of fiction you could get your hands on, including Judy Blume and later Stephen King, Lorrie Moore and Amy Hempel; all of them will influence you as a writer. You say, “I used to get into trouble because I would read in school when the rest of the class was doing other things.” You allude to this sense of being different in some of your stories. In one, “Dark Matter,” a character who is a physicist makes fun of his sister because she does not know the difference between Ebola and E. coli. “Sometimes I really think we brought the wrong baby home from the hospital,” he says. In another, “Blue Heron Bridge,” a naïve minister comes to stay with a family that is amazed because he knows so little about their world. You write: So many experiences were new to him! It was like having an exchange student from the Sudan...Reverend McWilliams had never eaten risotto or drunk Pimm’s. He did not know that shampoo could cost forty dollars...and he jumped every time the GPS spoke in the car...He had never seen a Wii before [and] had never seen Jurassic Park. You decide to become a writer because, you “have never been any good at anything else,” and in college you take every writing class you can; so many, in fact, that when you apply to law school because you feel obligated to find a career that will allow you to support yourself, you joke that they all reject you because of all of the creative writing classes on your transcript. Having no other idea what to do, you apply to two graduate writing programs: at Columbia University and at the University of Iowa. Columbia accepts you and you go there, in both poetry and fiction, and study with a faculty that includes Peter Cameron, whose story “Jump or Dive” you’ve read multiple times because it is what you call “comfort reading,” i.e. work you read over and over again because you love it so much. You say, “The fact that I was writing stories and he was reading them was so exciting to me.” At Columbia, you also take a workshop with Rick Rofihe, in which you write the story you will sell to The New Yorker. At the time, your only income is from reading the slush pile submitted to a literary agent, Roberta Pryor, whose big book was Peter Benchley’s Jaws nearly 20 years earlier, and who also was P.D. James’s American agent. You read the unsolicited novels that people send in, mostly thrillers, and write reports on them. You get paid only $7 for each report you submit and yet you feel obliged to read every manuscript all the way through even if you know within the first 25 pages you will not be recommending the novel to Roberta Pryor. This is what you are doing for a living when Roger Angell calls, and why you do not have enough money to be current with your rent. The magazine pays you an unimaginable dollar a word. 3. After you publish the story in The New Yorker, it does not change your life in any significant way but, contrary to what the Times writer later says, you do not disappear from the literary scene: you continue writing, and your work appears in some of the best journals in the country, including Narrative, Ploughshares, Greensboro Review, Glimmer Train, and others. You also sell stories about young girls and their unrequited love to Sassy and Seventeen, and a publisher for a series of young adult romance novels contacts you to ask if you would like to try writing a book in the series for them. You write more than 20 romance novels. You do it largely because the money is good; compared with what you are earning as a waitress, it seems a fortune. The work is hard but you enjoy it; when you have a contract for a book, you end up writing every day, and while your name is not on any of the books, you nonetheless learn “to deal with deadlines and how to write a novel-length manuscript.” The publisher insisted on an outline first before you would get the go-ahead on the project and you realize “that the outline is half the work. If you have the structure and you are not just meandering along, it makes it easier.” It also teaches you the value of persistence; you say, “When I first started writing YA and had a contract for a 200-page novel and I would write five pages, I would freak out at all that there was left to do but it taught me that you write a little bit every day, it gets longer. You get there.” You give it up after you marry and are expecting your first child and the doctor tells you that you need to stop working so hard for your sake and for the baby’s. You regret having to stop, but you do, and then you have a second child, and then family life means you cannot go back to it, but you continue writing short stories. 4. A few years ago, you decide that you feel at sea without an agent, so you find a new one. She asks you to send her what you have. You worry that you do not have a novel, as you have heard that agents cannot sell collections of short stories; but your agent says that is not the case, not in a time when a collection, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, won the Pulitzer Prize, as did another novel-in-stories, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. You send her 30-something files, all the stories you have, not organized in any fashion. She tells you that you can make a collection from your work, and the two of you go back and forth, choosing stories -- including “How to Give the Wrong Impression” -- and organizing them into a collection of 10 stories, all about women, most about women having affairs. In “Dive Bar,” a woman agrees to meet her lover’s soon-to-be ex-wife. In another, “Thoughts of a Bridesmaid,” a bridesmaid helps her more glamorous friend get married, although even as she prepares to go down the aisle, the bride has been having affairs with two other men. In another, “Blue Heron Bridge,” a married woman has an affair with a man she meets while she’s running -- a man who, it turns out, betrays her by having another affair, with the woman’s next-door neighbor; perhaps worse than that betrayal of her affections, however, is the fact that she considers her neighbor silly and uninteresting. Three of the stories give the collection a sort of narrative spine as they all center on the same character, Maya; in the first of the three, “Single, Carefree, Mellow,” she is preparing for the death of her dog who has cancer, while at the same time she is trying to figure out how to break up with her boyfriend, Rhodes; in the second, “Dark Matter,” she and Rhodes are engaged but she is having an affair with her boss at work; in the third, “Grendel’s Mother,” she and Rhodes are married and expecting their first child. On Halloween 2013, your agent calls to tell you that Knopf is offering you a two-book deal, for your collection and for a novel you’ve recently begun that will appear in 2016. In the middle of editing the collection, you have an idea for a new story. You imagine a high school girl, a good student, who begins having an affair with her history teacher who gives her a “B” in his class so that no one will suspect they are sleeping together -- although, ironically, she is such a good student that her father, while not suspecting the affair, does find it odd that she earns only a B in the class. Like “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” you write this one, “The Rhett Butlers,” in the second person because, you say, “Very early on I imagined the scene where getting the B in history lowers her GPA [and her class rank from 10 to 11], and I knew that it would be funnier to say, ‘Will you think of this bitterly in the future?’ and then say, ‘You better believe it.’ That’s funnier in the second person. It wouldn’t be in any other point-of-view. I will do anything for a joke.” The story appears in the The Atlantic, and you ask your editor if you can include it in the collection. She agrees, making the final count eleven stories in all. (Your collection will also have a third story in the second-person, about a mother staging what turns out to be a nearly disastrous eighth-birthday party for her son, where the mother is groped by a nearly inept magician she hires for the event who perhaps is naked beneath his robes.) 5. Your work is, in fact, marked by humor; but also secrets and sometimes a gentle sadness. The jokes: some of them are wry observations your characters make. In “Andorra,” the last story in the collection, the main character, who is having an affair with a man who is in marriage counseling with his wife, muses at one point about what she has in her life: “two little boys...and a 50-year-old husband named Roderick who worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, and a big house in Washington, D.C., and a minivan full of dog hair.” She thinks, “The fact that she has all this and a long-distance lover seemed to her a sign of strength and character.” In “Blue Heron Bridge,” your character is preparing to go with her husband and daughters to a block party where she knows she will run into her lover and his wife and spends a good deal of time on her appearance beforehand. As she is about to leave the house, she realizes that her husband and children do not look to her satisfaction, and she thinks, “dating...was easier when you were single and had to make only yourself, and not your whole family, presentable.” In yet another story, “Cranberry Relish,” a character has an affair with a man she meets on Facebook (who later replaces her as his lover with someone he meets on Twitter), and after she decides the sex is not just disappointing but bad, she thinks, "She was just a boring fool who’d had sex with a man who sometimes wrote defiantly when he meant definitely." The sadness: in “Single, Carefree, Mellow,” after her dog dies and Maya’s boyfriend seems to grieve even more than she does, she realizes that she cannot, as she had planned, break up with him. She thinks, “There is such a thing as too much loss.” In “Andorra,” as a woman contemplates a relationship that is ending, she thinks, “This was how it was going to be from here on out...nothing but a long series of partings.” Your fascination with secrets arises from your own life. After you start seeing the man you eventually marry, he confesses that he is actually an MI-6 agent, something you cannot reveal to anyone, not even your family after you marry, because it can endanger your husband and perhaps your entire family. You feel anxious about letting the fact slip (although it’s okay to talk about it now, after he’s left the agency), and so you channel your anxiety into your fiction. In nearly every story, a woman keeps a secret from those closest to her: women hide their affairs from their husbands; in “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” the narrator tries to hide from her roommate the fact that she loves him, and the fact that she is not actually in a romantic relationship with him from everyone else. In the title story, the character tries to hide from her boyfriend the fact that she wants to leave him, at the same time she is discovering that perhaps he is really too good for her. In “That Dance You Do,” the one story in the collection not centered on some kind of romantic love, the mother does not want to reveal to her son that she abhors one of the friends he invites to his party. 6. So now, almost a quarter-century after the day that Roger Angell called you with the news that he wanted to publish your story, a book with your name on it is at last out in the world and bringing you acclaim that surprises you. The attention is good, and you appreciate it, but then you go back to work on the novel you are writing for next year because, as you once said, there are few things better for a working writer than to be writing. You say: [Writing] is such an important part of my identity. When I’m not writing and people ask me what I do, I feel like such a fraud. [I]t’s also a coping mechanism -- a good one. Nothing so awful can happen that I can’t write a story about it. Click here to listen to an audio interview with Katherine Heiny.
We recently posted a new edition of Judging Books by Their Covers 2015: U.S. Vs. U.K. These comparisons are fascinating -- what does a "little billboard" on a book say about our respective cultures? I was recently looking at the covers of Dutch-language books and found many titles that I recognized. Despite our different cultures, we share many overlaps in our literary taste. I hoped that I could draw some conclusions about those tastes by comparing U.S. and Dutch-language book covers. After spending way too much time on the task, I conclude that I can't. The comparisons, however, are equally fascinating. With my tongue in one cheek, I've provided a few thoughts below. You are encouraged to take equally wild stabs in the comments. If anyone has more cultural insight, please do weigh in. The American covers are on the left, and the covers from the Dutch originals or translations are on the right. The Dinner is a good place to start as it was first published in Dutch in 2009. I understand the scorched place setting of the U.S. cover. Looking at the lobster on the Dutch cover...I'm thinking of a seaside restaurant in Maine. Maybe it's evoking the feelings that lobsters have when they go into a pot? That's how the tension of the novel feels, like being boiled alive? A Millions favorite, Stoner. I read the New York Review Books Classics version and it blew me away, so it is difficult for me to say anything that might sound disloyal. However, if I could draw a picture of my face after I read the novel, I would have looked exactly like the man in the Dutch cover on the right. I had to run this Dutch title through Google Translate to make triple sure that I had the cover of A Visit from the Goon Squad. It becomes "Visit the Thugs" in Dutch, which has a nice ring to it. I'm less clear about what purples evoke to the Dutch that turquoise on the U.S. hardback cover does not? Why one less fret on the neck of the guitar? Google Translate was no help in answering these questions. Some of the imagery for Freedom is similar, but the covers have very different feels. To me, the lake country in the U.S. cover evokes the gentrified world view of Patty and Walter Berglund. I'm interested in the choice of a flat field -- is it trying to say something similar to a Dutch speaker? If there is an Ornithologist out there, please let me know if the bird on the right speaks Dutch or English. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: wow. Anthony Doerr's Dutch translation is interesting as the publisher went with the U.K. cover (we declared it "pretty dull.") Maybe the Dutch designer agreed because there are some differences. Most striking are the changes of tint. The girls dress, for example, is much more vibrant on this cover than on the U.K. version on the right. In general, the U.S. cover takes the broader view of the book I read. I wonder if a reader in Amsterdam or London would disagree?
Dear Writing Teacher, We met at the University of Tampa this past week and you gave me your email address in order to get book suggestions from you. I'm working on a young adult novel in close third person with a decent amount of world building involved in the narrative. I've found it difficult to find contemporary novels (and short stories) that aren't written in first person so any suggestions you have, I would really appreciate. Thanks in advance for your help. Best Regards, Tiffany Dear Tiffany, I have to admit that your question, initially, made me giggle. My in-house statistician hasn't crunched the numbers yet (Nate Silver wasn't available so I hired my dog, Omar Little, and, quite frankly, he sucks at the job), but I'm pretty sure the proportion of contemporary novels narrated in the third person is equal to those narrated in the first. Or at least it feels that way. I have so many good third-person novels to recommend to you! Stoner by John Williams. The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. Off Course by Michelle Huneven. The Vacationers by Emma Straub. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. (I'm basically walking through my house, calling out titles. I could do it all day. The Fever by Megan Abbott!) Some of these books limit themselves to one character's consciousness, like Stoner or Off Course. Others, like The Vacationers and The Fever, shift between multiple characters from chapter to chapter, or scene to scene. In these novels, the distance between the reader and the events of the narrator, or "the psychic distance" as John Gardner puts it, is fairly close. These narratives reflect what James Wood calls, in How Fiction Works, the free indirect style: "As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking." (If you haven't read Wood's book, you can read the first chapter here. And you can read Jonathan Russell Clark's clever and helpful essay on close third here.) The Thin Place is told in a more elevated, all-knowing third-person point of view that skips from one small town resident to the next, including a dog, which is fitting since the book is about the thin scrim between the cosmic and the mundane, and the connection between all things. Everything I Never Told You also shifts its third person perspective, between family members, and its narrator has more knowledge than anyone; the book's first sentence, "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet..." makes that clear, and it emphasizes just how little this family understands about itself. In both these novels, perspective reflects theme especially well. If you're trying for this more elevated perspective, I also suggest you read Edward P. Jones along with 19th-century masters like George Eliot. These writers alight on one perspective and then another and another, deftly providing access to a character's most intimate motives in one passage only to gracefully move away to comment on the scene in the next. They drop Wisdom-with-a-capital-W and it's great fun to read. (And write, I hope!) An omniscient third person narrator feels like a bodiless character who shapes our understanding of the narrative's events. One of my writing teachers declared on multiple occasions that the third person point of view was easier than the first person. I disagree; each is easy and difficult in different ways. The first person has always come more naturally to me. Its performative qualities are revealing; I discover who my character is via language use and voice tics, confession and truth-dodging. Most importantly, there isn't the elasticity of psychic distance that exists in the third person, which requires control and intention so that the reader doesn't feel like she's riding a narrative tilt-a-whirl. It's disconcerting to be deep inside a character's psyche and then, suddenly, to see him from afar. I bet many first drafts of third-person narrations struggle with finding the best distance from which to tell the story. I recommend you decide what your novel's psychic distance is, and stick to it. If you're after a closer third person perspective, keep in mind Wood's image of the narrative bending around the character's mind so that the language and observations reflect and imply that particular consciousness. Also, avoid using "seeing" verbs; instead of, for instance, "She saw the cup on the table," just say something like, "The cup was on the table." Since it's a close third person, you don't need to tell the reader who is doing the seeing -- that's already implied. It's also easy to forget the body when writing in third person (just as it's easy to forget the external world when writing in first person). One way to lessen the psychic distance between reader and story is to include physical experience: not what others see of the narrator, but how it feels, internally, to be this self: how it feels to be tired, to be restless, to be nauseated, and so on. (One of my pet peeves as a reader is when we learn about the hair of a protagonist from a (supposedly) close third person narration; people have very specific relationships to their hair, and they don't view it, can't experience it, from afar. If you're gonna talk about a character's hair, make sure it expresses the experience of having said hair, rather than something like, "She ran a hand through her shoulder-length straight auburn hair..." which puts me outside the character and her experience. In that example, I'm looking at the character, rather than seeing the world with her.) Since your novel requires world building, I also recommend you read the last story/chapter in Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, "Pure Language," which seamlessly depicts a future New York City and a music industry that caters to toddlers -- or "pointers" as they're known -- from the third person perspective of a guy named Alex. As you read, mark the moments where Egan is providing the reader with expository information about the world. Where does Egan fit it in, and how? Perhaps more importantly, how do these passages reflect Alex's psyche and and shape our understanding of him? For example, look at this passage, where he's describing a woman he's meeting for the first time: Lulu was in her early twenties, a graduate student at Barnard and Bennie's full-time assistant: a living embodiment of the new "handset employee": paperless, deskless, commuteless, and theoretically omnipresent, though Lulu appeared to be ignoring a constant chatter of handset beeps and burps. The photos on her page had not done justice to the arresting, wide-eyed symmetry of her face, the radiant shine of her hair. She was "clean": no piercings, tattoos, or scarifications. All the kids were now. And who could blame them, Alex thought, after watching three generations of flaccid tattoos droop like moth-eaten upholstery over poorly stuffed biceps and saggy asses? I'm interested in how "handset employees" and "clean" are in quotation marks, which allows Egan to not only straight-up define these terms for the reader, but to show that Alex is apart from these communities. The phrasing of "All the kids" shows that Alex isn't as young as Lulu. Overall, the description of her reveals that Alex is attracted to her -- and also intimidated, I think. Egan could have left out the "Alex thought" in the last line -- the sentence would still work without it -- but its inclusion adds a few inches to the psychic distance, which perhaps gives Egan some flexibility of tone when describing this particular future. Part of your quandary, of course, is that you're writing a young adult novel, and I'm no longer giggling because, you're right, there are far fewer third person examples in that genre. Why is that? My friend Cecil Castellucci, who will publish her 12th (!) young adult novel, Stone in the Sky, in late February, has her own litmus test for categorizing a book as YA. Her definition sheds light on why so many are told in first person: For me, a book is YA when it has a young protagonist and the action is happening right now or has just happened. If a book has a young protagonist, but it is nostalgic or self-aware, then it is an adult book. Castellucci argues that a YA book feels like it's happening "in the now," and that this sense of urgency allows the reader to feel as if she's "on the journey with the character as they clue in and grow." The first person, and in particular the first person present, provides the kind of immediacy that the YA genre so excels at. In the third person, a sense of "nostalgia and awareness," which Castellucci says is usually present in adult books with young protagonists, might creep in. Castellucci says there are beautiful examples of third person YA books, so I asked my friend Katie Coyle, who recently published her first YA novel, Vivian Apple at the End of the World, for her suggestions. She recommended Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and Malinda Lo's Ash and Huntress. The first two are examples of realism, the third is historical fiction, and Lo's are fantasies. Now that you have these recommendations, I suggest you ban the first person for at least six months. Read only novels written in the third person. Furthermore, try to read third person novels that have the same psychic distance you're aiming for, be it close third, or an elevated omniscience, or something in between. When I'm struggling with a technical challenge in writing, I bang my head against the wall, write and rewrite and write again, and seek out books that have mastered said challenge. It's useful if the book's content is wildly different from mine -- that way, I don't feel like I will accidentally crib its ideas. For instance, if you're writing an epigrammatic novel about, say, the workplace, it would be helpful to read Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell for its succinct and perfect short chapters. (See also: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.) You'll be wise to avoid books that share your subject matter. It's form you're after, not content. Aside from all that, I'd recommend writing, to yourself, your reasons for choosing the third person. Why does the story need to be told this way? It's useful for me to articulate and defend my choices when I'm about halfway through a first draft. This lets me move partly (but never wholly!) out of intuition and into intention. Intention feels powerful. "Good luck, Tiffany!" she typed as she tucked her silky blonde hair behind her ear. Sincerely, The Writing Teacher
For the past six years or so, I’ve kept a log of all the books I’ve read -- usually about 50 per year. This year, however, the grand total (as of October 27) is 15. Fifteen books! For this paltry, pathetic sum, I would like to blame my otherwise perfect and blameless son, born in August 2013. Although, wait! If children’s books count, then I’ve easily read several hundred books this year. Phew. That makes me feel much better about the whole thing. Four of my favorites this year were story collections, which I suppose makes sense, given that stories take less time to read and are therefore a less intimidating enterprise for a new mother operating on very little sleep. They were Lorrie Moore’s Bark, Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, an ARC of Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I suppose only half-counts as a story collection, and which I was re-reading, so maybe that only counts as a quarter of a book read, you tell me. Other favorites were Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, which was just as wonderful as everyone said, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which I got to read before everyone else knew how wonderful it was, which felt like buying someone a really, really great Christmas present in July. As for the pictures books, there are some truly phenomenal ones, books that I am delighted to read 17times a day. Here is a very short list of some books that my son and I both love, in no particular order: The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli, Little Blue Truck by Alice Shertle, I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Duck and Goose Find a Pumpkin by Tad Hills, and The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, all of which I know by heart. It is very reassuring to know that I am still capable of memorizing new information. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
In August 1954, just months after he graduated from Harvard, John Updike had his first story accepted by The New Yorker. He was 22 years old. Three years after that, having spent a year studying drawing in England and two years as a staff writer at The New Yorker, Updike gave up his office job and set out his shingle as a freelance writer. For the next half century, he pumped out a steady stream of award-winning novels, poetry, criticism, and stories, often averaging more than a book a year. Updike was an excellent student -- all A's from 7th to twelfth grade, summa cum laude from Harvard -- and a ferociously hard worker, but he had little formal training in the craft of writing. In fact, as Adam Begley notes in his recent biography, Updike, the future two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner was rejected, twice, in his bid to take English S, Harvard’s most prestigious creative writing class taught by Archibald MacLeish. Yet from 1957, when he left the staff at The New Yorker until his death in 2009, Updike supported four children through two marriages without ever holding down a job other than writer. Interestingly, Updike’s mother, Linda, was also a writer. Like her son, Linda dedicated her life to the craft of fiction, spending 25 years revising Dear Juan, a ponderous historical novel about the Spanish explorer Ponce de Léon, which remains unpublished to this day. She did eventually publish 10 stories in The New Yorker, along with two story collections (one posthumously), but Begley goes to some length to assure readers that without her famous son’s help rescuing her stories from the slush pile, they likely never would have been published. “I had only a little gift,” Linda once told an interviewer, “but it was the only one I got.” In many ways, the tale of the two Updikes is a familiar one. Anyone who knows more than a few writers knows one or two who have achieved great things and dozens of others who have worked just as hard, cared just as much, and seen their work come to nothing. But this reality -- that for most writers, “a little gift” is all they’re going to get -- runs counter to the prevailing ethic of the creative writing world. Talent is overrated, apprentice writers are told over and over; what matters is a sense of vocation and a dedication to the craft of writing. “[T]he truth is,” writes John Gardner in the preface to his seminal book The Art of Fiction, “that though the ability to write well is partly a gift -- like the ability to play basketball well or outguess the stock market -- writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing.” This ethic finds its purest expression in the genre of public performance known as a craft talk. If you have ever attended a writing conference, you have been to a craft talk. An eminent writer -- the poet Robert Hass, say, or the novelist Jennifer Egan -- stands at a podium and delivers an hour-long lecture on an aspect of literary craft. Done well, these talks can be interesting and useful. Some years ago, I attended a craft talk at the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop in California in which one of the faculty authors suggested that the secret to writing good scenes is keeping them short -- no more than two or three pages, if possible. I thought this absurd until I started looking through novels I liked, and noticed that, with a few exceptions, the scenes were shorter than I’d thought, often two pages or less. Then I looked at my own fiction and noticed that my scenes were, well, longer. So, the problem with craft talks isn’t what is being said from the podium. The problem is the unspoken message of the genre of the craft talk itself, which is that one becomes a successful writer by mastering a series of discrete elements of literary craft. You learn to keep your scenes short. You gain a deeper understanding of the role of voice in narrative fiction. You remember to always put a little bad in your good characters and a little good in your bad characters, and -- poof! -- one day you open your laptop and discover you have written A Visit from the Goon Squad. This is a species of magical thinking. It is, of course, impossible to write a good book without a deep appreciation of how language and stories work, but it doesn’t follow that successful writers have simply worked at it harder than less successful ones or that their understanding of the craft of fiction is any more acute. What successful writers have that their less successful counterparts do not is talent. This inconvenient fact offends our sensibilities because it is elitist and because it means that for all but a very lucky few of us, literary greatness remains beyond our grasp. A belief in the transformative properties of craft also undergirds an ever-growing industry of creative writing education that, one way or another, now pays the bills for most working poets and literary writers. For these reasons, we have constructed a culture of discussing creative writing designed to skirt the obvious. Because craft exists outside us and can be improved through effort, a focus on craft gives us a way to talk about bad writing that is less hurtful to the writer. The successful writer is saved from having to tell the less successful one, “Sorry, but you have no talent.” Instead, the successful writer can say, “You need to work on your craft.” More insidiously, the cult of craft encourages apprentice writers to tell themselves the same thing: “My work isn’t good, but I can fix that by getting an MFA or going to writing conferences to work on my craft.” This line of thinking is all the more alluring because it contains a not inconsiderable kernel of truth. Anyone who attends an MFA program and pays attention will learn valuable things about writing, and anyone who writes on a regular basis will get better. But that doesn’t mean they will get good. Becoming a good writer, one whose work speaks to a broad range of readers, is ultimately -- and frustratingly -- beyond our control. None of this is to say that a concentrated focus on literary craft is a waste of time, or that writing can’t be taught, but as creative writing education continues to expand from a narrow field pursued by a devoted few to a profitable industry employing thousands, perhaps we should pause a moment to reflect on precisely what is being sold and what assumptions underlie the transaction. By some estimates, there are now nearly 1,300 degree-granting creative writing programs in the United States, and as I reported in a recent issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, private, non-accredited writing programs are starting to pop up around the country, many run out of their owners’ living rooms. This doesn’t count the many writers offering one-on-one craft advice and manuscript critiques, nor the fresh batches of writing conferences, festivals, seminars, and retreats that seem to appear with each new season, each offering up another slate of famous or near-famous authors leading workshops and delivering craft talks. These can be expensive exercises. Bread Loaf, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious writer’s conference, where two summers ago I paid $2,725 for a ten-day stay as a contributor, recently announced that it will charge contributors $3,050 in 2015 -- a 10 percent hike in just three years. And this is nothing compared to the tens of thousands of dollars students can expect to shell out in tuition to attend some of the pricier MFA programs. This creative writing industrial complex has become a vital source of income for writers, especially midlist ones who have seen their ability to profit from books and print magazine publications eroded by digital disruption. For many writers today, teaching others to write has become a steadier, more lucrative profession than writing. Once upon a time, during the high-water years of the print era, readers paid enough for the short stories and novels they enjoyed that writers like John Updike could go on producing them. They did not, as readers do today, endlessly swap his work for free on Facebook and Twitter and download copies of his books at deep discounts off Amazon, and then pay thousands of dollars to sit in a room and have him offer tips on how they could become the next John Updike. This signals an important shift in the relationship between writers and their readers. No longer are readers paying exclusively to enjoy a writer’s work; increasingly, writers are giving away their work for free or allowing it to be sold for far less than it cost them to produce it and making up the loss by teaching their readers how to become writers themselves. And the rhetoric of craft, which rests on the premise that anyone willing to put in the time can become a great writer, makes that possible. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and even if there were, we can’t put the digital genie back in the bottle. The fact is, the business of teaching writing supports many more literary writers than the old model ever did or could. The present model also promotes a more inclusive literary community, one in which writers and readers exist on a more equal plane -- and can even switch places -- in ways that would be unimaginable to the proud professionals of Updike’s era. But writers have to be honest about what produces good writing. Craft matters, and under the right circumstances, with the right teacher, writing can be taught. But there are limits. Poetry and literary fiction, as they are practiced at its highest levels, are not merely learned skills. Writing isn’t a craft, like carpentry or knitting. It is an art form. No number of scouring MFA critiques, no profusion of summer writing conference sessions or visits to low-residency programs, ever could have turned Linda Updike into her son John. Only talent could make that happen.
1. In high school I had a zine with my friend Vanessa. It included our poetry and short stories, and for the cover of the first issue we used a label maker to spell out its title. After we'd put out one or two issues, I received a polite request from a man in prison, asking me to send him a copy. He paper-clipped two dollars in cash to his request. For some reason, I put the letter aside. From time to time, I took out the request, read it, and then put it back. Years later, I spent the money. To borrow a phrase from Bennie Salazar, the record producer in Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad, this is one of my "shame memories." Sometimes when I can't sleep, or when I'm having a particularly low day, I think about the guy in prison who wanted to read my zine, and I wonder why I never sent it to him, why I spent his two bucks on lip balm or a soda or whatever. What shames me the most is that there was no reason why I didn't send him the zine. I just...didn't. I had planned to, but something, perhaps the teenage trifecta of distraction, malaise, and self-absorption, held me back. I'm also ashamed that I think about this so much. As if my juvenile zine really mattered all that much to anyone. Lately, I've been thinking: If I were a fictional character, would readers hate me? 2. In her essay "Perfectly Flawed" Lionel Shriver writes, "Surely if fiction recorded the doings only of good campers who anguish about climate change and buy fair trade coffee, novels would be insufferably dull." I agree. As a reader, my only rule is that a character be interesting. I also have a taste for the quote-unquote unlikeable set: Eva Khatchadourian from Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin; Sheba and Barbara from Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal; Undine Spragg from Edith Wharton's Custom of the Country. I love that they're barbed, delusional, judgmental, thorny, damaged, and/or vulnerable. As Roxane Gay writes, "I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it." Every couple of months there's a new defense of unlikeable characters (see: Claire Messud's take) or likeable ones (see: Jennifer Weiner's), and this conversation often returns to our cultural expectations of women. Recently, Emily Nussbaum wrote about "The Female Bad Fan" for The New Yorker. These are "the fans of shows with female protagonists, both comedies and dramas, who crave not bloodshed but empowerment." Nussbaum writes: The Mindy Project is a sitcom about a woman poisoned by rom-coms, but it offers up its own romantic-comedy pleasures. Female viewers, especially, have been trained to expect certain payoffs from romantic comedies, vicarious in nature: the meet-cute, the soul mate, and, in nearly every case, a “Me, too!” identification. Without “Me, too!,” some folks want a refund. I've come across something similar with my own novel, California, which is marketed as a literary post-apocalyptic novel, but is also a study of a young marriage. While many readers tell me they like the wife, Frida, many do not. Readers on Goodreads or Amazon have expressed this opinion, but so have a couple critics: in the Washington Post, for instance, Sara Sklaroff remarked that Frida "isn’t much of a heroine. She’s annoying, self-centered and tragically naive." I was surprised that Sklaroff hated Frida as much as she did, and even more puzzled that she didn't also have trouble with Cal, Frida's husband; to me, they're both flawed. I was surprised, too, that character likability was a central focus of the review. 3. To be honest, the negative reactions to Frida have given me a wee bit of a complex. I've found myself wondering about my own actions, about the way I've hurt this or that person, or felt slighted about some insignificant thing someone said to me. The way, in college, I asked, "What's with the hat?" to a Mennonite at the movies. The shame memories are running on repeat these days, is what I'm saying. Frida isn't like me: she is impetuous and secretive, she acts based on emotion and intuition, and she's a slacker. Cal isn't like me either: he is more hesitant, reserved, and adaptable than I am. These characters frustrated and disappointed me, but I always found them compelling. Likability wasn't part of the equation; I simply wanted to write about these two specific people, alone and together in the woods, mourning their pasts and trying to stay hopeful. If anything, I was interested in setting a small-scale drama within an "end-of-the-world" situation. What if, at the end of the world, we aren't our best selves--we're just ourselves? (This summer I read The Hunger Games and though I'd love to be as brave as Katniss, I doubt I would be. Maybe the post-apocalyptic genre has trained us to expect characters to break free from the shackles of pettiness and resentment and grief in the face of world-ruin. I'm interested in the characters who don't or can't do that.) 4. I decided to ask two fellow writers about their experience with the "unlikeable" issue. Jean Hanff Korelitz told me that by the time her new novel, You Should Have Known, came out in March, readers' dislike for her protagonists had "risen to a general din...even from readers who liked the novel very much." She went on: 'I just didn’t like her' is a phrase I read over and over again on Goodreads and Amazon, about the protagonist, Grace Sachs (a woman who has so many problems -- missing, probable murderer and adulterer husband, exploding career, global humiliation, etc.-- that reader reviews would be pretty far down on the list). The whole phenomenon made me take stock of the female characters I’ve gravitated to over the years: Lizzie Bennet? Becky Sharp? The strange, probably mentally ill narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping? Would I truly have wanted to take a spa weekend with any of them? When had that become a requirement for appreciating a fictional character? When I asked Jean what's on her mind as she creates a character, she said, "I seem to have this compulsion to take women who appear strong, fortunate, “self-actualized,” and rip them to shreds, then see what they make of themselves after that, how they claw their way back." She continued: I think there’s an essential feminism at work here...not that I am in the habit of quoting Therese Giudice (she of the indelible “ingredientses” for the cookbooks she -- God help us -- writes), but her most recent Real Housewives tagline -- “You never know how strong you are until it’s the only choice you have...”--could serve the protagonists of most of my novels. Women really are strong when they have to be. And that, to me, is far more compelling than finding your “bestie” in the pages of a novel. Since receiving Jean's words of wisdom, I've been thinking a lot about what I want to see in fictional characters, no matter the gender: I want them complex and realistic, and also surprising. And for female characters, it's particularly important to me that they have the freedom to be whatever they need to be, whether it's strong, or weak, or ice-cold, or vulnerable, or all of the above. After all, my real-life best friend can be all of those things, and I still love her. Author Emma Straub helped me put this all in perspective. A small contingent of readers don't seem to like her character Franny, who is the matriarch of Emma's novel The Vacationers. (Which is weird to me, as Franny is funny, an excellent cook, and she's being pretty pleasant in the wake of her husband's infidelity.) Emma is wonderfully sanguine about the issue: I certainly never intended to make my characters either likable or unlikeable — my goal with the characters in this book was to make them as real as possible. Warts and all. I always liked them, but I don’t think that’s even the point. I wasn’t surprised when some readers didn’t, because I saw them as three-dimensional human beings, and god knows it’s hard to find one of those that you don’t find in some way lacking or imperfect. I truly could not care less if readers feel differently. I also think there’s a big difference between a character being unlikeable (whatever that means) and it being unpleasant to spend time reading about them. I have put down many books because I didn’t like the experience of reading them, but that has nothing at all to do with whether or not the characters in those books seemed like people I would want to hang out with. That’s my question, I suppose, for the people who keep bringing this horseshit up. Are they complaining about not enjoying the book, or that they don’t want to have tea with the characters? Because if it’s the former, for godssake, stop reading! I grew up in a house built on horror novels, so I’ve spent my entire life reading books about serial killers and pedophiles and assorted other creeps. Are those unlikeable characters? To some people, probably. 5. Traditionally, the Unlikeable Character in fiction is created with authorial intention. You, as the reader, recognize the cues that the person you're reading about is alienating or reprehensible, and it's clear that such characterization is part of author's aesthetic project. (Unreliable Characters, a la the infamous butler in Remains of the Day, are also traditionally revealed this way). But what if a character isn't Unlikeable, but unlikeable? What if you just didn't like him or her? That's a valid personal response, and certainly a good a reason as any to stop reading. But it's such a personal response that it's irrelevant to the critical gaze. 6. Part of me is embarrassed that I unintentionally wrote characters that are so insufferable--at least to some readers. It's like holding a glass up to a door, behind which strangers are describing how terrible you--or worse, your children!--are. I can't help but keep eavesdropping. At the same time that I emailed Jean and Emma, I also sought out readers who couldn't stand Frida. This was part anthropological experiment, part focus group. I felt like, if I could just get some answers, I might understand my own book a little better. I stumbled upon Susan's review on Goodreads. In it, she details how much she couldn't stand any of the characters in California. It's a very funny rant, which begins, "I don't remember ever before reading a book where I so hated all of the pieces yet so very much enjoyed the book as a whole." When I asked Susan when exactly her antipathy began, she told me, "I actually disliked Frida from almost the first page. She immediately seemed crass and spoiled to me." In the first scene, the reader learns that Frida treasures a turkey baster, purchased before leaving Los Angeles, which even Cal doesn't know she possesses. Susan said, "The turkey baster was so bizarre... I got what it was about, but the fact that it was so frivolous and silly, combined with the fact that the very first thing I learned about her was that she was keeping secrets (STUPID secrets!) from her husband just turned me off." Susan's reactions fascinated me. One, that frivolity would be damning, rather than revealing, or that a reader would require a secret be grave, especially when it's between a husband and wife. I'm reminded of the time someone told me they hate to dance, as in, they never ever feel the urge to move to music, even when alone. Wow, I thought, people sure are different from me! (Susan also hated that Frida "seemed to be entirely defined by the men in her life." I hate that, too.) Susan had some choice words for Cal: "The truth is, I actually hated Cal more than Frida. I thought he was a pompous pseudo-intellectual hipster ass." Sheesh, Susan, tell me how you really feel! Generally, she interpreted Cal and Frida through the lens of their white privilege. That interpretative model poses a powerful question about characterization: how much is our identity, and our actions, dictated by race and class? But, then again, if a reader traces everything about Frida and Cal back to their white privilege, that means I've failed, in some way, to make them fully human. It also might suggest that there's a lower tolerance for white privilege in the post-apocalyptic landscape; some readers want the end-of-the-world to slough off such burdens. (To me, Frida and Cal are victims of late-capitalism, and also products of it. Aren't we all.) Another reader, Shayna, answered my call on Tumblr for anyone who hated Frida. She said she was bothered by Frida's decision to take a Vicodin while pregnant. And, again, she took issue with Frida withholding information, especially from Cal. She wrote, "I just found this so stupid and selfish." It's true, Frida does some pretty stupid and selfish stuff, as does Cal. I suppose, as a writer, I'm interested in the stupid, selfish choices we make. 7. Hearing from Shayna and Susan brought me some peace, for I can't control how people react, nor should I want to. I am honored that my novel elicited strong reactions to my characters, and I'm heartened that both readers enjoyed the book despite (or because of!) these reactions. Both agreed that there's often a double-standard for female characters. Shayna said, "A women is whiny or bitchy and ruins the story whereas a male is mean or surly and [that] just makes him interesting or an anti-hero." Susan said, "I am a huge, huge fan of Gillian Flynn, the primary reason being that she's not afraid to write female characters who are evil, psychotic, violent, and messed up in every possible way. I find that so much more empowering and compelling as a female reader to hear about those women than about the perfect, nice, likeable, and usually totally unrealistic female characters you find in most novels." Susan's tastes align with mine, and with many other readers'. Right now there are so many complex female characters for us to encounter on the page and screen, particularly quote-unquote unlikable ones, from Amy Elliott-Dunne of Gone Girl, to the (less murderous) Hannah Horvath of Girls. I, for one, can't turn away from these women, and I won't. I won't turn away from the characters who stem from my own dark, muddy mind, either. Image via amysjoy/Flickr
The only thing harder than writing a fully realized short story is turning a collection of them into a fully realized novel. Tim O’Brien pulled it off in The Things They Carried. So did Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kittredge. More often, though, the novel-in-stories conceit seems more a marketing gimmick to get around admitting the book is simply a collection of stories organized around a theme or a group of characters. At best, you get Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, in which the sum of the (often brilliant) parts add up to more than the (somewhat nebulous) whole. At worst, you get a novel full of holes. Dylan Landis’s new novel-in-stories Rainey Royal starts off with a brace of taut, aching stories about a troubled young girl in 1970s New York City raising herself in a world of crazy adults. These early stories are set in a sprawling five-story townhouse on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village ruled by Rainey’s jazz-musician father, Howard Royal, and his creepy sidekick, Gordy Vine, who likes to come into Rainey’s bedroom and stroke her hair while she pretends to sleep. Rainey is 14 and gorgeous, and her mother has departed for an ashram in Colorado, never to return. Readers of Landis’s first story collection, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, will remember Rainey as the queen-bee mean girl who makes school life miserable for Leah Levinson, the insecure, obsessive-compulsive girl who is the focus of many of the stories in that book. Rainey’s riveting mix of cruelty and neediness stole the show every time she appeared in Normal People, so it makes sense that when Landis returned to the world of that earlier book, she would turn the spotlight on Rainey. The Rainey we meet in this volume’s first story, “Let Her Come Dancing All Afire,” remains as feisty and beautiful as she was in the earlier collection, but now she’s the victim, not the aggressor. In a few deft scenes, Landis creates a vivid fictive universe in which Rainey’s jazz-star father, surrounded by dazzled young groupies and espousing a supercilious brand of hippie-era permissiveness, allows his daughter to be molested repeatedly under his own roof. In Landis’s capable hands, every battle, every transgression is minutely observed. We are only five pages into the first story when Rainey, asked to sit down for a talk with Howard and Gordy after walking home from the library in the rain, makes her first mistake, telling her father, “I’m soaking wet.” “She regrets this immediately,” Landis writes. “Gordy’s attention, like a draft from a threshold, wafts toward her. He doesn’t even have to raise his head.” From here on, “Let Her Come Dancing All Afire” is a grim battle for territory, with Gordy, aided by Rainey’s indulgent father, waging a quiet war of attrition for access to Rainey’s body, and Rainey using every scrap of her wit and beauty to make her body her own -- even as she covets the attention of the two men who are the closest thing to parents in her life. In later stories, this battle shifts to possession of the house itself, which, it turns out, belongs to Rainey’s grandmother, who has allowed Howard to hold it for Rainey in trust until she turns 25. There are the makings of an explosive novel here, but Landis, having set the bomb in place and struck the match, declines to light the fuse. The third story in the collection, “Trust,” turns on a wildly implausible robbery, in which Rainey and her best friend Tina take Howard’s gun and stick up a couple walking through their West Village neighborhood. The story is beautifully written, all sharp edges and jazzy rhythms, and one can see how it would work as a self-contained short story (indeed, “Trust” was first published in Tin House and won an O. Henry Award). But as a chapter in a novel, it makes no real sense. Here these two teenage girls, making only the most amateurish attempts to disguise themselves, rob and terrorize a couple at gunpoint in broad daylight in their own neighborhood -- and nothing happens? No police investigation? No concern about their victims recognizing them on the street? No desire to pull off a similar crime? Just nothing. Landis works a few oblique references to the robbery into later stories, but for the most part, it’s as if Rainey and Tina have temporarily stepped into some parallel universe in which their actions have no repercussions on the rest of their lives. This keeps happening, the quick-hit demands of short fiction overtaking the deeper, more sustained pleasures of the novel form. As Rainey and her school friends grow older, Landis turns away from the central battleground that makes the opening pages so riveting, adding new characters and plotlines and switching perspectives from one character to another. A few of these later stories are frankly puzzling. In “Fly or Die,” uptight Leah is hijacked at a party by mysterious woman named Zola, who leads her to a strip club, where Leah, apparently, is being groomed to go onstage. My note at the end of this story was succinct: “WTF?” At no point in this does Landis lose her native gift for sentences. A former journalist whose husband happens to be New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, Landis is, line by line, one of the smartest and most exacting prose stylists we have. She is especially good on the human body. The withered hand of Rainey’s grandmother, Lala, “creeps back to Lala’s hand like a daddy longlegs.” Just a few pages later, Radmila, a young Yugoslav flautist whom Rainey discovers naked in her father’s bed “holds the sheet to the butter knives that are her collarbones.” Landis also nails the complex inner tectonics of girlhood friendship and rivalry. In one early scene, as Rainey and Tina are toying with how to respond to the repulsive attraction Gordy holds for young girls like them, Tina turns her back on Rainey to reach for a bag of sugar. “Her top rides up,” Landis writes of Tina, “revealing an indented waist that Rainey appreciates because it is necessary that they both be sexy, but revealing, also, a little sash of fat, which Rainey relishes because it is necessary that only one of them have a flawless body.” Writing this good, especially when powered by a snappy premise, can make for an electric 20-page short story. A novel, to go the distance, also needs a sustaining narrative to carry the reader through. Rainey Royal has the potential for that narrative drive in Rainey’s struggle to take back her body from the men in her life who want to own it, but as the book veers ever further away from the battle over territory in Rainey’s West 10th Avenue townhouse, the drama of the opening stories gradually dissipates until the novel begins to seem more marked by its elisions than by what is on the page.
With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2013/2014 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. 2013/14 was a suprisingly diverse year when it comes to literary awards, with no single novel winning multiple awards and very little crossover on the shortlists. Only one book is climbing the ranks this year. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer and was on the National Book Critics Circle shortlist. Next year, we will need to make some changes to our methodology. When compiling this list, I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. However, now that the Booker Prize will be open to English-language books from all over the world, including the U.S., the panel of awards is now lopsided in favor of the U.S. Is there another British-only award that we can use to replace the Booker next year? I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W >6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2013, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - P, C 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
1. I don't know what I'm preparing for. My whole life I've considered valuable certain experiences, accomplishments, and knowledge simply because I imagine they'll be useful to me in the future. I'm beginning to doubt this proposition. Here's an example. For the last ten years, I've kept a Word document for quotes. Any time I come across a worthy passage, I file it away. By now, the file has grown to over 30,000 words from hundreds of books, articles, poems, and plays. I do this not in the interest of collecting quotable prose or for the benefit of inspiration or encouragement or even insight. What I'm looking for are potential epigraphs. You see, I love epigraphs. Everything about them. I love the white space surrounding the words. I love the centered text, the dash of the attribution. I love the promise. When I was a kid, they intimidated me with their suggested erudition. I wanted to be the type of person able to quote Shakespeare or Milton or, hell, Stephen King appropriately. I wanted to be the type of writer who understood their own work so well that they could pair it with an apt selection from another writer's work. If I ever wrote a novel, I told myself, about a writer, maybe I could quote Barbara Kingsolver: "A writer’s occupational hazard: I think of eavesdropping as minding my own business.” Or maybe one of Philip Roth's many memorable passages on the writer's life, like: No, one’s story isn’t a skin to be shed — it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you. Or, taking a different tack: It may look to outsiders like the life of freedom — not on a schedule, in command of yourself, singled out for glory, the choice apparently to write about anything. But once one’s writing, it’s all limits. Bound to a subject. Bound to make sense of it. Bound to make a book of it. If you want to be reminded of your limitations virtually every minute, there’s no better occupation to choose. Your memory, your diction, your intelligence, your sympathies, your observations, your sensations, your understanding — never enough. You find out more about what’s missing in you than you really ought to know. All of you an enclosure you keep trying to break out of. And all the obligations more ferocious for being self-imposed. In some cases, I'd read something that was so eloquent and succinct, so insightful, I'd be inspired to write something around it, even if I didn't have anything to go on other than the quote. Aleksander Hemon's The Lazarus Project is positively riddled with possible epigraphs. Right away, on page two, we get this: "All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.” (Recognize that one? If you do, that's because it has already been used as an epigraph for Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, except McCann changes all of the I's to we's.) Then, on the very next page, this: "There has been life before this. Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there.” A few pages later: "I am just like everybody else, Isador always says, because there is nobody like me in the whole world.” On page 106: "Nobody can control resemblances, any more than you can control echoes." That one made me want to write about a despotic father and the son who's trying to avoid following in his footsteps. I didn't have a great need to write that story, but the quote would have fit it so perfectly I actually have an unfinished draft somewhere in my discarded Word documents. This is, of course, a stupid way to go about crafting fiction. I learned that lesson. You can't write something simply because you've found the perfect epigraph, the perfect title, the perfect premise –– there has to be a greater need, a desire that you can't stymie. Charles Baxter once wrote, "Art that is overcontrolled by its meaning may start to go a bit dead." The same is true of art overcontrolled by anything other than the inexplicable urge to put story to paper. I know this now. Yet I still collect possible epigraphs. And so far, I have yet to use a single entry from my document at the beginning of a piece of fiction. 2. Epigraphs, despite what my young mind believed, are more than mere pontification. Writers don't use them to boast. They are less like some wine and entrée pairing and more like the first lesson in a long class. Writers must teach a reader how to read their book. They must instruct the tone, the pace, the ostensible project of a given work. An epigraph is an opportunity to situate a novel, a story, or an essay, and, more importantly, to orient the reader to the book's intentions. To demonstrate the multiple uses of the epigraph, I'd like to discuss a few salient examples. But I'm going to shy away from the classic epigraphs we all know, those of Hemingway, Tolstoy, etc., the kinds regularly found in lists with titles like "The 15 Greatest Epigraphs of All Time," and talk about some recent books, since those are the ones that have excited (and, in some cases, confounded) me enough to write about the subject in the first place. A good epigraph establishes the theme, but when it works best it does more than this. A theme can be represented in an infinity of ways, so it is the particular selection of quotation that should do the most work. Philip Roth's Indignation opens with this section of E.E. Cummings's "i sing of Olaf glad and big": Olaf (upon what were once knees) does almost ceaselessly repeat "there is some shit I will not eat" For a book titled Indignation, this seems a perfect tone with which to begin the novel. Olaf's a heroic figure, who suffered unrelenting torture and still refused to kill for any reason, which means Roth here is also elevating the narrative of his angry protagonist to heroic status. Marcus Messner is a straight-laced boy in the early 1950s, attending college in rural Ohio. Despite his best efforts, Marcus gets caught up in the moral hypocrisy of American values, winding up getting killed in the Korean War. Marcus and Olaf are, as Cummings wrote, "more brave than me:more blond than you." Authors do this kind of thing all the time. They borrow more than just the quoted lines. In Roth's case, it was Cummings's moral outrage about American war he wanted aligned with his novel. In Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, she opens with two separate passages from Proust's In Search of Lost Time: Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years. The unknown element in the lives of other people is like that of nature, which each fresh scientific discovery merely reduces but does not abolish. The theme of Egan's novel is time and its effects on us –– how we survive or endure, how we perish, how things change, etc. –– a fact established here by quoting the foremost authority on fictive examinations of time, memory, and life gone by. But more than that, Egan is connecting her novel –– which is full of formal daring and partly takes place in the future –– to a canonical author whose own experimentation has now become standard. Like the music industry in her book, the world of literature has changed, maybe not for the worse but irrevocably nonetheless, and Proust's monumental achievement has become, to most modern readers, an impenetrable and uninteresting work. Egan's choice of epigraph places her squarely in the same tradition. The Modernism of Proust gave way to the Postmodernism of Egan. Years on, to readers not yet born, A Visit from the Good Squad may seem a hopelessly old-fashioned relic. Such is the power of time. James Franco also opens his story collection Palo Alto with a selection from In Search of Lost Time, but the effect is severely diminished in his case. First of all, the quoted passage reads: There is hardly a single action that we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything. Though a fitting passage for a work that focuses on young, troubled California teenagers, there is nothing other than the expressed idea that justifies Franco's specific use of Proust as opposed to anyone else. And Franco attributes the quotation to Within a Budding Grove, which is the second book in, as Franco has it here, Remembrance of Things Past. Those two translations of the titles are, by now, somewhat obsolete, the titles of older translations. Within a Budding Grove is now usually referred to as In the Shadows of Young Girls in Flower. There is something a tad disingenuous about Franco's usage here, a more transparently self-conscious attempt to legitimize his stories, something he didn't need to do. His stories, despite some backlash he's received, are pretty good. Some writers are just masters of the epigraph. Thomas Pynchon always knows an evocative way to open his books. His Against the Day is a vast, panoramic novel that features dozens of characters in as many settings. The story begins at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 and goes until the 1920s, a period of remarkable technological change the world over. Electricity had been commercialized and was becoming commonplace. Tesla was conducting all his experiments. Pynchon reduces all of these pursuits to a wonderfully succinct quote: It's always night, or we wouldn't need light. –– Thelonious Monk First of all, have you ever even thought about the universe in this way? That darkness is its default setting? Secondly, have you ever heard a more beautiful and concise explanation for one of the great plights of humanity? We're afraid of the dark, and the desire for light (both literal and metaphorical) consumes us. Referencing Monk does the opposite of referencing Proust. Pynchon's working with high theme here, but he's coming at it with the spirit of a brilliant and erratic jazz artist. His so-called "beach read," Inherent Vice takes place at the end of the 1960s, an era that clearly means a lot to Pynchon. Earlier, in Vineland, radicals from the 60s have become either irrelevant eccentrics or have joined the establishment. It's a strange, mournful meditation on the failures of free love. Inherent Vice takes a similar approach. Doc Sportello is a disinterested P.I. for whom the promise of that optimistic decade offers very little. That optimism is where we begin the novel: Under the paving-stones, the beach! –– Graffito, Paris, May 1968 A very pointed reference. Paris in May of 1968, of course, was a hotbed of protest and civic unrest, a time of strikes and occupations, and, for hippies and radicals, a harbinger of the changes to come. Well, Inherent Vice takes place on a beach. No paving-stones need be removed for the beach to appear. Yet the promise of the graffito –– i.e., that beauty and natural life exist under the surface of the establishment –– seems, to Doc Sportello (and us, as readers, in retrospect) a temporary hope that, like fog, will eventually lift and disappear forever. In the end, as Doc literally drives through a deep fog settling in over Los Angeles, he wonders "how many people he knew had been caught out" in the fog or "were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep." He continues: Someday...there'd be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and form alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog. The fog will lift, and the dream of the 60s will become a memory, murky but present. For Doc, and for us, all he can do is wait "for the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead." For many, Inherent Vice was a light novel, a nice little diversion, and it mostly is, but for me it has more straightforward (and dare I say, sentimental?) emotional resonance than many of Pynchon's earlier novels. And this epigraph is part of its poignancy. Doc's complicated personal life becomes a panegyric for an entire generation, all in the form of a "beach read." Sometimes, though, epigraphs offer a different kind of poignancy Christopher Hitchens’s last collection of essays, Arguably, opens with this: Live all you can: It's a mistake not to. –– Lambert Strether, in The Ambassadors Hitchens, by the time Arguably was published, had already been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He knew he was dying. This epigraph stands as Hitchens's final assertion of his unwavering worldview. Even more retrospectively moving are the epigraphs of Hitch-22, a memoir he wrote before the doctors told him the news. One of these passages is the wonderful, remarkable opening of Hitchens's friend Richard Dawkins's book Unweaving the Rainbow: We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of the Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, who are here. Though I'm not sure how "ordinary" Hitchens viewed himself (he seems to have thought a great deal of himself), this still seems an uncannily prescient sentiment to be quoted so soon before his diagnosis. But maybe my all-time favorite epigraph comes from Michael Chabon's recent Telegraph Avenue: Call me Ishmael. ––Ishmael Reed, probably This is one of the cleverest, funniest, and most arrogant epigraphs I've come across in recent years. "Call me Ishmael" is, as we all know, the opening sentence of Moby Dick. Ishmael Reed was a black experimental novelist, author of the classic Mumbo Jumbo, a writer steeped in African American culture not depicted in mainstream art. Chabon's novel takes place in Oakland and focuses, in part, on race. It is Chabon's most direct attempt to write a Great American Novel (it even suggests as much on the inside flap of the hardcover), with its grand themes and storied setting, its 12-page-long sentence, its general literariness. By framing his book with an irreverent reference to one of America's definitive Great American Novels, placed in the mouth of a black writer, Chabon both announces his intention to write a Great book and denounces the entire notion that there can be Great books. How does the supposed greatness of Moby Dick speak to the black experience? What does its language offer them? So here, the most revered sentence in American literature becomes, for a man named Ishmael, a quotidian utterance, a common request. Call me Ishmael. Just another day for Ishmael Reed. And Telegraph Avenue works like that, too. It's just another day for Archy and Nat, the book's main characters. Is Telegraph Avenue Chabon's Moby Dick? His Ulysses? Perhaps. But it's certainly in conversation with those books; the epigraph makes that much clear. Epigraphs are, ultimately, like many components of art, in that they can pretty much accomplish anything the writer wants them to. They can support a theme or contradict it. They can prepare readers or mislead them. They can situate a book into its intended company or they can renounce any relationship with the past. And when used effectively, they can be just as vital to a novel's meaning as the title, the themes, the prose. An epigraph may not make or break a book, but it can certainly enhance its richness. And, more, they can enhance the richness of the epigraph itself. Because of Michael Chabon, I can never look at Moby Dick's famous opening the same way again. When I read Cummings's poem "i sing of Olaf glad and big," I have a new appreciation for its political implications. Literature is wonderful that way. It isn't merely the creation of new work; it's the extension of the art itself. Each new novel, each new story, not only adds to the great well of work, it actually reaches back into the past and changes the static text. It alters how we see the past. The giant conversation of literature knows no restrictions to time or geography, and epigraphs are a big part of it. Writers continuously resurrect the dead, salute the present and, like epigraphs, hint at what's to come in the future. 3. Now that I think about it, I realize that all those quotes I'd been saving up over the years finally have a purpose. Since I've become a literary critic, I've mined my ever-growing document numerous times, not for an epigraph, but as assistance to my analysis of a literary work. I've used them to characterize a writer's style, their recurring motifs or as examples of their insight. These quotations have become extremely useful, invaluable even. In fact, I see my collection as a kind of epigraph to my own career. At first, I didn't understand their import, but as I lived on (and, appropriately, as I read on), those borrowed words slowly started to announce their purpose, and when I revisit them (like flipping back to the front page of a novel after finishing it), I find they have new meaning to me now. They are the same, but they are different. Like Pynchon writes in Inherent Vice: "What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.”
One thing I've learned in grad school is that journalists love to talk about journalism. My friends couldn't go out to Irish dive bar near campus without discussing the latest New York Times article, so after I finished my last drink I would escape into fiction. I devoured more John Green novels this summer than I should admit (Paper Towns is my favorite) and carried around Dave Eggers's The Circle along with my text books to sneak in a few minutes of reading between classes. Yet ironically, the best books I read this year were about journalism. Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation tells the story of how the press shaped the Civil Rights Movement. Reading the book for a class opened my eyes to a lot of truths -- how whitewashed my high school education on the Movement was, that objectivity never really existed (and that's probably for the best), and how powerful good journalism can be. I'm not just talking about how influential good reporting can be, but how important the writing of it is, and it applies to the authors of this book as much as their subjects. Klibanoff and Roberts treat the journalists like characters in a novel, complete with what suits they were wearing when they reported the integration of the Little Rock Public Schools to what they drank afterward. The Race Beat could have been a dry list of forgotten bylines and protests, but these personal details made it a sweeping narrative with heroes and villains, tragedy and victory, and even nuance. Ultimately, Klibanoff and Roberts show that good reporting takes us back to the individuals because they are the story. Tom Rachman follows a similar ideal in The Imperfectionists. This stories-as-novel focuses on a dwindling English-language newspaper in Rome. We learn about the newsroom through its beleaguered staff as each chapter centers on a different journalist from the paranoid copy editor Ruby Zaga to the naive Cairo stringer, Winston Cheung. Each story is so strong it could stand alone, but Rachman interweaves them in a similar fashion to A Visit from the Goon Squad with unsettling surprises revealed as the stories intersect. Eventually, we realize that the protagonist was the unnamed paper all along. Yet what unites the book is its economical but sharply observed prose. Rachman cuts to the bone like a good reporter would, but he writes to almost Joycean epiphany and parses people better than the corrections editor can parse a sentence. As one character notes, “Journalism is a bunch of dorks pretending to be alpha males;" and that's what makes this book so striking. Although any journalist can appreciate a caricatured view of a paper (I certainly did), fundamentally The Imperfectionists is a story of loners, misplaced ambition, and what it's like to be an underdog, which is something we can all relate to -- newsroom or not. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2012/2013 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. (In fact, 2013/2014 has already begun with the unveiling of the diverse Booker longlist.) Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Hilary Mantel's Cromwell sequel Bring Up the Bodies landed fairly high on the list after sweeping both of Britain's major literary awards (though the book hasn't quite matched the hardware racked up by Mantel's Wolf Hall). Meanwhile, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. A glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
1. “Why are they still bothering with paperbacks?” This came from a coffee-shop acquaintance when he heard my book was soon to come out in paperback, nine months after its hardcover release. “Anyone who wants it half price already bought it on ebook, or Amazon.” Interestingly, his point wasn’t the usual hardcovers-are-dead-long-live-the-hardcover knell. To his mind, what was the use of a second, cheaper paper version anymore, when anyone who wanted it cheaply had already been able to get it in so many different ways? I would have taken issue with his foregone conclusion about the domination of ebooks over paper, but I didn’t want to spend my babysitting time down that rabbit hole. But he did get me thinking about the role of the paperback relaunch these days, and how publishers go about getting attention for this third version of a novel — fourth, if you count audiobooks. I did what I usually do when I’m puzzling through something, which is to go back to my journalism-school days and report on it. Judging by the number of writers who asked me to share what I heard, there are a good number of novelists who don’t quite know what to do with their paperbacks, either. Here’s what I learned, after a month of talking to editors, literary agents, publishers, and other authors: A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot. 2. About ebooks. How much are they really cutting into print, both paperbacks and hardcovers? Putting aside the hype and the crystal ball, how do the numbers really look? The annual Bookstats Report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which collects data from 1,977 publishers, is one of the most reliable measures. In the last full report — which came out July 2012 — ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time, representing $282.3 million in sales (up 28.1%), compared to adult hardcover ($229.6 million, up 2.7%). But not paperback — which, while down 10.5%, still represented $299.8 million in sales. The next report comes out this July, and it remains to be seen whether ebook sales will exceed paper. Monthly stat-shots put out by the AAP since the last annual report show trade paperbacks up, but the group’s spokesperson cautioned against drawing conclusions from interim reports rather than year-end numbers. Numbers aside, do we need to defend whether the paperback-following-hardcover still has relevance? “I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got,” says MJ Rose, owner of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, as well as a bestselling author of novels including The Book of Lost Fragrances. “So many books sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies in hardcover and high-priced ebooks, but take off when they get a second wind from trade paperback and their e-book prices drop.” What about from readers’ perspectives? Is there something unique about the paperback format that still appeals? I put the question to booksellers, though of course as bricks-and-mortar sellers, it’s natural that they would have a bias toward paper. Yet the question isn’t paper versus digital: it’s whether they are observing interest in a paper book can be renewed after it has already been out for nine months to a year, and already available at the lower price, electronically. “Many people still want the portability of a lighter paper copy,” said Deb Sundin, manager of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, MA. “They come in before vacation and ask, ‘What’s new in paper?’ ” “Not everyone e-reads,” says Nathan Dunbar, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, IL. “Many customers tell us they’ll wait for the paperback savings. Also, more customers will casually pick up the paperback over hardcover.” Then there’s the issue of what a new cover can do. “For a lot of customers the paperback is like they’re seeing it for the first time,” says Mary Cotton, owner of Newtonville Books in Newtonvillle, MA. “It gives me an excuse to point it out to people again as something fresh and new, especially if it has a new cover.” 3. A look at a paperback’s redesign tells you a thing or two about the publisher’s mindset: namely, whether or not the house believes the book has reached its intended audience, and whether there’s another audience yet to reach. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s Rorschach. Hardcovers with muted illustrations morph into pop art, and vice versa. Geometric-patterned book covers are redesigned with nature imagery; nature imagery in hardcover becomes photography of women and children in the paperback. Meg Wolitzer, on a panel about the positioning of women authors at the recent AWP conference, drew knowing laughter for a reference to the ubiquitous covers with girls in a field or women in water. Whether or not publishers want to scream book club, they at least want to whisper it. “It seems that almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book,’” says Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin watched the covers of her previous books, including Mrs. Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been, change from hardcovers that were “beautiful, and a bit brooding” to versions that were “more colorful, more whimsical.” A mood makeover is no accident, explains Sarah Knight, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, and can get a paperback ordered in a store that wouldn’t be inclined to carry its hardcover. “New cover art can re-ignite interest from readers who simply passed the book over in hardcover, and can sometimes help get a book displayed in an account that did not previously order the hardcover because the new art is more in line with its customer base.” Some stores, like the big-boxes and airports, also carry far more paperbacks than hardcovers. Getting into those aisles in paperback can have an astronomical effect on sales. An unscientific look at recent relaunches shows a wide range of books that got full makeovers: Olive Kitteridge, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Newlyweds, The Language of Flowers, The Song Remains the Same, The Age of Miracles, Arcadia, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, as did my own this month (The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.) Books that stayed almost completely the same, plus or minus a review quote and accent color, include Wild, Beautiful Ruins, The Snow Child, The Weird Sisters, The Paris Wife, Maine, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger’s Wife, Rules of Civility, and The Orchardist. Most interesting are the books that receive the middle-ground treatment, designers flirting with variations on their iconic themes. The Night Circus, The Invisible Bridge, State of Wonder, The Lifeboat, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Tigers in Red Weather, and The Buddha in the Attic are all so similar to the original in theme or execution that they’re like a wink to those in the know — and pique the memory of those who have a memory of wanting to read it the first time around. Some writers become attached to their hardcovers and resist a new look in paperback. Others know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse. When Jenna Blum’s first novel, Those Who Save Us, came out in hardcover in 2004, Houghton Mifflin put train tracks and barbed wire on the cover. Gorgeous, haunting, and appropriate for a WWII novel, but not exactly “reader-friendly,” Blum recalls being told by one bookseller. The following year, the paperback cover — a girl in a bright red coat in front of a European bakery — telegraphed the novel’s Holocaust-era content without frightening readers away. “The paperback cover helped save the book from the remainder bins, I suspect,” Blum says. Armed with her paperback, Jenna went everywhere she was invited, which ended up tallying more than 800 book clubs. Three years later, her book hit the New York Times bestseller list. “Often the hardcover is the friends-and-family edition, because that’s who buys it, in addition to collectors,” she says. “It’s imperative that a paperback give the novel a second lease on life if the hardcover didn’t reach all its intended audience, and unless you are Gillian Flynn, it probably won’t.” There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second lease. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit. At issue: the moment to reissue, and the message to send. “Some books slow down at a point, and the paperback is a great opportunity to repromote and reimagine,” says Sheila O’Shea, associate publisher for Broadway and Hogarth paperbacks at the Crown Publishing Group (including, I should add, mine). “The design of a paperback is fascinating, because you have to get it right in a different way than the hardcover. If it’s a book that relates specifically to females you want that accessibility at the table — women drawn in, wondering, Ooh, what’s that about.” The opportunity to alter the message isn’t just for cover design, but the entire repackaging of the book — display text, reviews put on the jacket, synopses used online, and more. In this way, the paperback is not unlike the movie trailer which, when focus-grouped, can be reshaped to spotlight romantic undertones or a happy ending. “Often by the time the paperback rolls around, both the author and publicist will have realized where the missed opportunities were for the hardcover, and have a chance to correct that,” says Simon & Schuster’s Sarah Knight. “Once your book has been focus-grouped on the biggest stage — hardcover publication — you get a sense of the qualities that resonate most with people, and maybe those were not the qualities you originally emphasized in hardcover. So you alter the flap copy, you change the cover art to reflect the best response from the ideal readership, and in many cases, the author can prepare original material to speak to that audience.” Enter programs like P.S. (Harper Collins) and Extra Libris (Crown Trade and Hogarth), with new material in the back such as author interviews, essays, and suggested reading lists. “We started Extra Libris last spring to create more value in the paperback, to give the author another opportunity to speak to readers. We had been doing research with booksellers and our reps and book club aficionados asking, What would you want in paperbacks? And it’s always extra content,” says Crown’s O’Shea. “Readers are accustomed to being close to the content and to the authors. It’s incumbent on us to have this product to continue the conversation.” 4. Most of a paperback discussion centers on the tools at a publisher’s disposal, because frankly, so much of a book’s success is about what a publisher can do — from ads in trade and mainstream publications, print and online, to talking up the book in a way that pumps enthusiasm for the relaunch. But the most important piece is how, and whether, they get that stack in the store. My literary agent Julie Barer swears the key to paperback success is physical placement. “A big piece of that is getting stores (including the increasingly important Costco and Target) to take large orders, and do major co-op. I believe one of the most important things that moves books is that big stack in the front of the store,” she says. “A lot of that piece is paid for and lobbied for by the publisher.” Most publicists’ opportunities for reviews have come and gone with the hardcover, but not all, says Kathleen Zrelak Carter, a partner with the literary PR firm Goldberg McDuffie. “A main factor for us in deciding whether or not to get involved in a paperback relaunch is the off-the-book-page opportunities we can potentially pursue. This ranges from op-ed pieces to essays and guest blog posts,” she says. “It’s important for authors to think about all the angles in their book, their research and inspiration, but also to think about their expertise outside of being a writer, and how that can be utilized to get exposure.” What else can authors do to support the paperback launch? Readings have already been done in the towns where they have most connections, and bookstores don’t typically invite authors to come for a paperback relaunch. But many are, however, more than happy to have relaunching authors join forces with an author visiting for a new release, or participate in a panel of authors whose books touch on a common theme. And just because a bookstore didn’t stock a book in hardcover doesn’t mean it won’t carry the paperback. Having a friend or fellow author bring a paperback to the attention of their local bookseller, talking up its accolades, can make a difference. I asked folks smarter than I about branding, and they said the most useful thing for authors receiving a paperback makeover is to get on board with the new cover. That means fronting the new look everywhere: the author website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Change the stationery and business cards too if, like I did, you made them all about a cover that is no longer on the shelf. “Sometimes a writer can feel, ‘But I liked this cover!’” says Crown’s O’Shea. “It’s important to be flexible about the approach, being open to the idea of reimagining your own work for a broader audience, and using the tools available to digitally promote the book with your publisher.” More bluntly said, You want to sell books? Get in the game. Your hardcover might have come and gone, but in terms of your book’s rollout, it’s not even halftime yet. “The paperback is truly a new release, and a smart author will treat it as such,” says Randy Susan Meyers, author The Murderer’s Daughters, her new novel The Comfort Of Lies, and co-author of the publishing-advice book What To Do Before Your Book Launch with book marketer and novelist M.J. Rose. “Make new bookmarks, spruce up your website, and introduce yourself to as many libraries as possible. Bookstores will welcome you, especially when you plan engaging multi-author events. There are opportunities for paperbacks that barely exist for hardcovers, including placement in stores such as Target, Costco, Walmart, and a host of others. Don’t let your paperback launch slip by. For me, as for many, it was when my book broke out.”
Stand on Zanzibar is that rarity among science fiction novels — it really made accurate predictions about the future. The book, published in 1969, is set in the year 2010, and this allows us to make a point-by-point comparison, and marvel at novelist John Brunner’s uncanny ability to anticipate the shape of the world to come. Indeed, his vision of the year 2010 even includes a popular leader named President Obomi — face it, Nate Silver himself couldn’t have done that back in 1969! Let me list some of the other correct predictions in Brunner’s book: (1) Random acts of violence by crazy individuals, often taking place at schools, plague society in Stand on Zanzibar. (2) The other major source of instability and violence comes from terrorists, who are now a major threat to U.S. interests, and even manage to attack buildings within the United States. (3) Prices have increased sixfold between 1960 and 2010 because of inflation. (The actual increase in U.S. prices during that period was sevenfold, but Brunner was close.) (4) The most powerful U.S. rival is no longer the Soviet Union, but China. However, much of the competition between the U.S. and Asia is played out in economics, trade, and technology instead of overt warfare. (5) Europeans have formed a union of nations to improve their economic prospects and influence on world affairs. In international issues, Britain tends to side with the U.S., but other countries in Europe are often critical of U.S. initiatives. (6) Africa still trails far behind the rest of the world in economic development, and Israel remains the epicenter of tensions in the Middle East. (7) Although some people still get married, many in the younger generation now prefer short-term hookups without long-term commitment. (8) Gay and bisexual lifestyles have gone mainstream, and pharmaceuticals to improve sexual performance are widely used (and even advertised in the media). (9) Many decades of affirmative action have brought blacks into positions of power, but racial tensions still simmer throughout society. (10) Motor vehicles increasingly run on electric fuel cells. Honda (primarily known as a motorcycle manufacturers when Brunner wrote his book) is a major supplier, along with General Motors. (11) Yet Detroit has not prospered, and is almost a ghost town because of all the shuttered factories. However. a new kind of music — with an uncanny resemblance to the actual Detroit techno movement of the 1990s — has sprung up in the city. (12) TV news channels have now gone global via satellite. (13) TiVo-type systems allow people to view TV programs according to their own schedule. (14) Inflight entertainment systems on planes now include video programs and news accessible on individual screens at each seat. (15) People rely on avatars to represent themselves on video screens — Brunner calls these images, which either can look like you or take on another appearance you select — “Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere.” (16) Computer documents are generated with laser printers. (17) A social and political backlash has marginalized tobacco, but marijuana has been decriminalized. Other science fiction books have occasionally made successful predictions, from Jules Verne’s Around the Moon (1865), which eerily anticipated many details of the Apollo program, to William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) with its descriptions of cyberspace and hackers. But Brunner’s work stands out as the most uncanny anticipation of what would actually change — and what would stay the same — in the decades following its publication. Certainly, there are many details, large and small, that Brunner got wrong. But even when the particulars don’t ring true, the overarching theme of Stand on Zanzibar, which is the hidden cost of our obsession with human perfectibility, is just as relevant today as when Brunner wrote his novel. In this book, each of the major characters is on a mission to improve the human race, and in ways that are all-too-familiar to us today. Sometimes this preoccupation manifests itself in legislation and regulation; politics — both national and global — increasingly manifests itself as a competition between different schemes for human improvement in Stand on Zanzibar. Certainly that attitude shows no sign of going out of style in the current day. Even minor characters in Stand on Zanzibar distinguish themselves by their zeal for upgrading the species, whether through writing books filled with advice and indictments, or business investment in impoverished regions, or implementing ambitious software programs that improve the efficiency and quality of life, or just good, old psychological manipulation. These too are still part of our everyday life. But the most popular — and controversial — method of human improvement in the fictional world of 2010 presented by Brunner draws on biotechnology and the potential for tinkering with our DNA. A few days before I wrote this essay, I ran across an article about a Harvard professor who proposes placing Stone Age genes in a human embryo, then implanting it in an “adventurous woman” who would serve as surrogate mother for the the resulting Neanderthal baby. This scenario sounds like something lifted straight from the pages of Stand on Zanzibar. In Brunner’s novel, a prominent professor named Sugaiguntung is working on a comparable line of research, and hopes to create superhumans by drawing on his experiences manipulating the DNA of orangutans. Indeed, the sci-fi story sounds more plausible than the news story. The plot is deliberately fractured and presented in fragments by Brunner, who modeled his work on John Dos Passos’s similarly structured (or rather unstructured) U.S.A. Trilogy. Like Dos Passos, he interjects headlines, bits of news stories, song lyrics, self-contained background interludes, and other cultural bric-à-brac into his narrative. But unlike Dos Passos, Brunner finds ways of pulling the different threads together into extravagant new shapes — most notably in the final pages, when a novel that seems too disparate to cohere surprises readers by the elegance with which all the pieces come together. And though there are many things to admire in this prickly, unconventional book, perhaps the most impressive feat is our author’s ability to maintain tight control with a clear sense of purpose and direction even when the narrative appears the most anarchic and chaotic. Put another way, what originally comes across as a free-spirited 1960s novel, long on attitude but short on clarity, turns out to have more in common with those artful new millennium novels, such as Cloud Atlas, A Visit from the Goon Squad, or Gods Without Men, in which all the storylines converge, the colorful subplots fitting together into a brilliant and unexpected mosaic. Two diverging plot lines dominate the novel. Norman House is an African-American who has joined the senior management of GT, a multinational corporation akin to General Electric. To advance his career and staunch his growing alienation, House signs on to an ambitious project in Africa that promises both to make bundles of money and also improve the quality of life for the citizens of a desperately poor Third World nation. At almost the same moment, House’s roommate Donald Hogan embarks on an even more challenging project — one that requires him to operate as a spy in a hostile Asian country, loosely based on Indonesia, where amazing breakthroughs in genetic research have been announced. These two plot lines will eventually come together, but Brunner takes his time in this big, discursive book, and much of the appeal from Stand on Zanzibar comes from the subplots and minor characters. A bohemian author named Chad C. Mulligan provides both insight and comic relief in equal doses, and is such a persuasive figure that he deserves to star in a novel of his own. Guinivere Steel, the hard-edged leader of a boutique chain, is another compelling figure who only gets a bit part. Her specialty is throwing extravagant society parties in which the entertainment is built around her humiliation of the guests, especially those she doesn’t want to invite to her next soirée. And, staying true to a time-honored sci-fi tradition, Brunner includes one top-notch digital character, the computer Shalmaneser, which is to the GT Corp what that chess-playing electronic brain Deep Blue is to IBM. As I look back at the remarkable burst of experimentation in science fiction during the 1960s, led primarily by the younger New Wave authors, I am frequently disappointed by how few of them hold up nowadays. Too often, bold techniques that promised to open up new terrain to SF during the 1960s and 1970s ended up as stylistic dead ends by the time we got to the 1980s and 1990s. But Brunner, older than most of the other New Wave authors and in some ways the least likely to deliver a breakthrough novel — he had been churning out conventional genre books, sometimes a half-dozen or more in a single year, for almost two decades when he published Stand on Zanzibar — raised the ante further in these pages and won on his big bet. And he did so with a risky gambit, in which both form and content were stretched to their limits. That he managed to get so many predictions right along the way is to his credit, but hardly the only reason to read this one-of-a-kind novel.
Reared in the dressing rooms of the 18th century, the novel can often seem out of place in our age of LOLcats and Angry Birds. But in spite of its advanced age and sometimes stuffy reputation, the old chap is surprisingly nimble. In the technological tumult of the past decade, for example, YA went through puberty, electric literature moved out of the ivory tower, and the literary novel was successfully (for the most part) cross-pollinated with a number of more exotic genres. In the midst of all this, a strange literary beast has reemerged, a hybrid of the short story and traditional novel. This newly reinvigorated genre -- let’s call it the polyphonic novel -- uses a chorus of voices and narrative styles to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Think Nicole Krauss’s Great House or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad or Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. Just as polyphonic music combines melodies to create texture and tension, the polyphonic novel collects a multiplicity of distinct, often conflicting voices around a single place, family, object, or idea. Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze. Drawing inspiration from classics like The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury, Mrs. Dalloway, and John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, contemporary polyphonic novels make music from the messy cacophony that is life in the 21st century. Bypassing traditional notions of character and plot, polyphonic novels create meaning at the intersection of seemingly random plot lines. Harmonies are found in the artful assemblage of disparate voices. As the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin described the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky: “A plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.” Eschewing objectivity and uniformity, polyphonic novels rely instead on simultaneity, contradiction, and the empty space between voices. Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, is a perfect example of the genre. The book traces four Londoners as they attempt to understand, escape, and make their way through Kilburn, the working-class neighborhood where they all grew up. With each new narrator, the novel loops back on itself, answering and expanding upon questions raised by previous sections. Towards the beginning of the book, for example, one of the main characters watches her best friend and her best friend’s husband exchange a glace across a crowded party. “She sees no smile, no nod, no wave, no recognition, no communication, nothing at all.” Two hundred pages later, we have begun to understand the glance in all its sad complexity. The seemingly enviable couple is really nothing but “an advert for themselves,” “like a double act that only speaks to each other when they are on stage.” Polyphony is particularly well-suited to excavations of the urban landscape. (For what is a city if not a collection of conflicting voices?) In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann mobilizes a chorus of seemingly incongruous voices to conjure a portrait of New York in the 1970s. Skipping between narrators -- an aging prostitute, an Irish monk, a judge, and an irresponsible young artist, to name just a few -- McCann creates a dissonant, yet synchronistic world nearly as vivid and wonderfully cluttered as the city itself. But polyphonic novels need not live in the city. Take, for example, Hari Kunzru’s brilliant Gods Without Men, which layers the Mojave desert with a progression of characters searching for meaning in the void. Narrators pop up and fade away. They build doomsday bunkers, military bases, and geodesic domes. They spend decades looking for truth, but the quiet mystery of the desert subsumes them all. As the final narrator writes, “that which is infinite is known only to itself and cannot be contained in the mind of man.” Contemporary polyphonic novels come in a wide variety of flavors. Many find structure in the family. Others, like The Imperfectionists, are shaped around the extended family of the workplace. Ian McEwan’s Atonement centers around a single act of accusation. While Great House and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book follow a single object through history, dipping in and out of the lives of those who have possessed it. And then there are those polyphonic novels built on nothing more than an idea. Swirling around seemingly unapproachable concepts such as authorship and fictionality, aging and time, novels like Cloud Atlas and A Visit From the Goon Squad use a variety of forms and styles to create a sense of scope that would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve with a single narrator. It can be hard sometimes to tell the difference between these most disparate polyphonic novels and linked short story collections like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Emma Donoghue’s Astray. Often, unfortunately, this border is delineated by marketing departments eager to attract readers (who, as conventional wisdom would have it, are drawn like moths to those two tiny words, “a novel,” tucked away at the bottom of the book cover). As Jay McInerney grumbled in a recent review: “I suspect that if Dubliners had been published in recent years it would have been marketed as a novel.” Whether or not his assessment is true, many readers agree with McInerney’s basic premise. Indeed, a quick perusal of Goodreads reveals a sizable cadre of those frustrated by polyphonic novels’ lack of traditional plot and character development. As one reviewer on the Great House page wrote: “writing a book of short stories, fitting them together Tetris-like, and calling it a novel DOES NOT MAKE YOUR BOOK A NOVEL.” Even some professional critics seem flummoxed by polyphony (see, for example, Douglas Copeland on Gods Without Men or Mike Peed on Let the Great World Spin). While certain readers and critics might be frustrated by shifting genre boundaries and non-linearity, the polyphonic novel has found favor among those responsible for giving out literary awards. Almost all of the books mentioned above have won (or should win) major literary prizes. The finalists for the past decade of Pulitzers, Bookers, and National Book Awards include quite a few works that could be described as polyphonic. This might be a coincidence, or a peculiar bias of the awards’ judges. Regardless, these awards indicate that the polyphonic novel occupies an important sector of the contemporary literary landscape. With each foray onto the Internet, each ping and clang, we are searching for meaning in a haystack of data, balancing perspectives, trying to find reason in a cacophony of opinion. Is it any wonder we are drawn to fiction that reflects this new way of being, to a form that’s uniquely suited to our fragmented and globalized century? The novel survived the advent of radio, cinema, and television, thanks in large part to its pliability. And the novel will continue to survive so long as it continues to adapt.
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn't read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat. I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called "Where the Bros Are" -- or was it "For the Bros"? -- but forgot to write it down (don't get me started on the things I didn't write this year). I read NW and couldn't stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it's not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year. I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight's Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland's History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then). I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn't really read that either, just 20 pages. As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2011/2012 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad moved up thanks to landing on the IMPAC shortlist and is now in some rarefied company among the most honored books of the last 20 years, while The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
I'd been waiting to read another novel by Lauren Groff ever since I finished her first, The Monsters of Templeton, a genealogy-detective story which also happens to include an enormous lake monster and sentences so beautiful you just want to weep. That promising debut, however, could not prepare me for the brilliance and wisdom of Arcadia, Groff's recently-released second novel. I was wholly swept up in this story about, among other things, a man who is raised on a commune; I would've read it faster were it not for the stunning prose that I wanted, like a fine meal, to savor. Groff's novel is so richly imagined that every word, every detail, feels true. She is one of the most talented writers working today. The Millions: I was immediately drawn to Bit as a narrator--he's sensitive, thoughtful, a keen observer of his surroundings, sweet, and tiny. Can't get much more loveable than that. (He also seems an antidote to another fictional boy, Kevin, from one of my favorite books, We Need to Talk About Kevin--and I think, as a mother of a son, I needed that!) I really enjoyed being in Bit's world, his perspective. Was he always the person to tell this story? How do you feel a different member of Arcadia might have altered our perception of it? Lauren Groff: Bit was always the person to tell the story, even if he didn't begin as the character he ended up being by the last draft. I started this book when I was pregnant with my first son Beckett; from the beginning, I knew there was going to be a child's point-of-view in the first part. That said, Bit was at first a girl, primarily because almost every point-of-view character I've ever written up to then was female. Then Beck was born, and suddenly the character had to be a boy, and he grew into a fuller life as my son did. This book is equally Bit's mother's story--Hannah's story--and even though she and I are similar in a lot of ways, I found Bit's perspective to be more interesting, his loss more keen. When Arcadia falls apart, Bit knows nothing of the world beyond, really, and has to go into it as an innocent, which seemed utterly terrifying to me. (As a side-note, I love Lionel Shriver [holy hell!].) TM: I was impressed with how language of this book shifted, grew more mature, as the book progressed, as Bit aged. Also, there's almost a groovy rhythm to the prose early on that reflects the lifestyle of the commune. Later on, the prose is far more subdued. Was this intentional, and how did you calibrate the perspective with each section? LG: It's hard to say how intentional the shift in language was--I write from the gut a lot. That said, I believe very deeply in the symbiosis of story and mode, that the way that a writer chooses to tell the story has to be at least an equal partner to the story itself. Global things matter--the external architecture of the story, its internal structure, point-of-view, voice, verb tense, authorial distance, things like that. And smaller things matter equally--the use of white space, the length and rhythm of the sentences, the choice of details. When a story I've written has failed, it's because I haven't found the right way to tell it in either a large way or a small way. TM: Everyone who's read this book raves about its prose. It's gorgeous! When Bit is alone as a child in the dark woods, you write, "There is a sense of gathering, a hand that clenches the center of a stretched cloth and lifts." Later, Bit describes the unfamiliarity of boxed cookies, how they taste "the way batteries do when licked." As an adult, he thinks of his students, their "faces cracked with interest." The images are specific, surprising, beautiful. Can you talk a little about your relationship to sentences and imagery, and how you go about crafting your prose? LG: Ha. Thanks. The prose that ends up in a finished piece is the product of lots and lots of drafts. I do a preliminary draft of almost everything I write, where I just sprint from the beginning of the story to the end in longhand, and when I'm done, I throw it out without rereading it. This seems wasteful, but it's actually immensely freeing. By the time I'm done with the first draft, I've figured out my structural problems, have a good idea of the characters, and, most importantly, am not so wedded to the words themselves that I can't fix what's inherently broken about the piece. When I start again, the nice phrasing or images from the first draft reappear if they're interesting or important and don't if they're not. And then, after a good longhand draft is finished (maybe after three or four re-starts), and I transfer it all to the computer, the second stage of drafting begins, where I print out the manuscript, scribble over it crabbily in red ink, insert changes, and reprint. This goes on for dozens and dozens of drafts. And then there are the trusted reader drafts, the agent drafts, the editor drafts, the copy-editor drafts. Sometimes, I wonder if writing fiction is, at its core, mostly a matter of finding a story or character that's interesting enough to hold the writer's interest through all of the painstaking work of revising. TM: The novel reads episodically, with little moments or scenes broken up by white space. There are parts that feel more episodic than others, and it almost feels like time is passing in flashes, everything blurry but a brief, beautiful moment. This made the book not only highly readable, but it also emphasized the passage of time by giving it a physical dimension on the page. This is a long-winded preamble to asking you how you conceived of time passing in Arcadia. The novel is told in the present-tense, and yet, the latter half of the book is so much about Bit looking backward. How did you wrestle with all the years covered? How does scene-writing change in a book that covers so much time? LG: Oh, I'm so glad you mentioned time. From the beginning, it was deeply important to my idea of the project of this book. I am in love with the gorgeous, elastic, leaping human brain that shuffles and connects disparate pieces of the world into a coherent story. I wanted the white space, either between the episodes or between the four parts of the book, to carry a lot of the narrative burden. Some people may live lives that are perfectly linear, but mine seems to happen in intense, emotionally-charged spurts, followed by long, fallow periods of relative calm. My impression of history--our collective storytelling--is that it happens in crests and troughs, too. With Arcadia, I wanted to examine time, through Bit, as this intensely personal experience; I also wanted to examine time in its larger historical patterns. TM: I admit, I'm a bit annoyed that so many reviews of Arcadia give away its plot and structure , which was deeply surprising (and thus pleasurable) to me. So, ***spoiler alert*** to those reading this interview who haven't read the book! I was shocked when this book moved forward into the future; this suddenly panoramic view of Bit's whole life reminded me a little of A Visit from the Goon Squad (of which I am a big fan), in its surprising depiction of a future that supplies us with a new understanding of the book's characters. Did you know you were going to structure Arcadia like this? I kept wondering if an earlier draft was more conventional, plot-wise, more like Room by Emma Donoghue--where the little boy who was born and raised in a shed escapes and in the second half of the book has to interact with this big, scary new world. Why skip ahead to Bit as an adult, now accustomed to the outside world? Were you meaning to shift our expectations of plot and novel structure? LG: As soon as I figured out what I wanted to write about, I understood that my arc was going to move toward dystopia at the end of the book. The impulse stemmed from my research--a lot of the back-to-the-landers I read about and talked to for Arcadia went from being largely idealistic in the 1960s to being somewhat apocalyptic nowadays; for instance, a number of them ascribe to peak oil theories and practice radical homemaking. (For the record, I don't think they're wrong.) I was gobsmacked by the idea that people who were extremely future-thinking in their twenties would become extremely anxious about the future in their sixties. It keyed into a lot of the bleakness I was feeling at the time I envisioned this book, because, in truth, I was (am) afraid for my baby's future. Also, the real pattern for this book was not just ending at Paradise Lost, but also extending into Paradise Regained; if Bit were going to be given the chance to return home, the stakes in the outside world had to be heightened. And though I deeply love Room, which I let myself read after my final edits, Bit's trajectory was different because I wanted to explore how Bit carries his parents' idealism throughout his life and how it changes him. TM: How much research went into Arcadia? What in the commune is just pure imagination and fantasy, and what did you feel needed to be backed up with historical fact? Where does research fit into your writing process? LG: I research first and a great deal, and then do a small amount throughout the rest of the writing process, all of which took about four years for this book. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do at the beginning, so I started with just basic texts about utopias and dystopias. I moved on to utopian novels (Butler, Morris, More, Le Guin, Campanella, and on and on), read about actual historical intentional communities. The two that took my breath away were Oneida, in mid-nineteenth-century upstate New York (Mansion House is the inspiration for Arcadia House), and The Farm in 1960s through '80s Tennessee. I spent a few days at both places. Oneida is now a guest-house, and you can stay with people who still live at The Farm, both of which experiences I recommend heartily. And then I talked to everyone who would talk to me about their experiences in intentional communities. Serendipity was on my side with this project. Even during moments that I wasn't looking for a story, I stumbled into one. We had a garage sale and someone came up to us who said our house had housed a cult in the 1970s that she'd been a part of. Apparently, they wore pink robes and made the kids sleep in the garage. TM: And because The Millions is a site about books, I must ask, What's the last great book you read? LG: I just read Leela Corman's Unterzakhn, and can't say enough lovely things about it. It's a graphic novel that just came out, set on the Lower East Side in the beginning of the twentieth century. It's lush and smart and and funny and just beautifully drawn. And I just reread Jami Attenberg's great new novel called The Middlesteins, which will be published in October. It's so great-hearted and warm and brilliant. You'll love it.
The IMPAC Award shortlist was announced today. The IMPAC sets itself apart with its unique approach. Its massive longlist is compiled by libraries all over the world before being whittled down by judges. This makes for a more egalitarian selection. It's also got a long lead time. Books up for the current prize (to be named June 13th) were all published in 2010, putting the IMPAC more than a year behind other big literary awards. There's a distinct upside in this. By now, nearly all the shortlisted books are available in paperback in the U.S. The IMPAC also tends to be interesting for the breadth of books it considers.This year's shortlist is typically eclectic, representing several countries and ranging from bestsellers to relative unknowns.Rocks in the Belly by Jon BauerThe Matter With Morris by David BergenA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – (excerpt, Egan’s Year in Reading, The Millions profile of Egan, A Millions Hall of Famer)The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (excerpt)Even the Dogs by Jon McGregorMatterhorn by Karl Marlantes (our review, excerpt)Landed by Tim PearsLimassol by Yishai SaridThe Eternal Son by Cristovão TezzaLean on Pete by Willy Vlautin (excerpt)
1. A location scout came through my parents’ neighborhood last month and slid a letter printed on blue paper into each house’s screen door. The letter had HBO’s (fuzzily reproduced and definitely not hi-res) logo at the top and announced in all capital letters that a production team had descended on Mount Vernon, N.Y., in hopes of finding a “HOUSE WITH AN ATTACHED GARAGE.” It happens that Chez Aronstein has one of those, and my mother found a copy of the letter when she got home from work. She called me in Chicago. “Look, I won’t keep you,” she said, in a greeting that has become standard for our conversations, “Someone from HBO came to our house. Have you read that book called -- what is it -- ?” I could hear her rustling some papers on the other end, “The Corrections?” “They want to film the TV series at our house,” she said. 2. In a short essay written for The New York Times Sunday Book Review last month, Craig Fehrman points out that HBO has recently decided to pay attention to serious fiction -- or what used to be known in the TV industry as “Stuff We Don’t Buy.” Last year, the premium channel acquired rights to The Corrections for a full four-year series and convinced Jonathan Franzen to write the scripts. Noah Baumbach will direct at least a few episodes. HBO execs also swiped up Jennifer Egan’s 2010 A Visit from the Goon Squad as well as two of 2011’s best-received novels, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding. In the case of the latter two, it seems as though the TV rights were negotiated along with publishing rights, so quickly did HBO decide to option them. Writers have long been squeamish about selling their work to Hollywood directors, let alone to television (not all writers, of course). In his own famously crotchety essay "Why Bother?", Franzen offers the familiar lament that television dumbs down cultural consumption. He argues, “Broadcast TV breaks pleasure into comforting little units—half-innings, twelve-minute acts -- the way my father, when I was very young, would cut my French toast into tiny bites.” To the Franzen of 1996, when compared with television (the Internet wasn’t yet on literature’s radar as an existential threat), the so-called “social” novel simply can’t match up on the issue of popularity. Neither can it win a resource war. “Few serious novelists,” he adds, “can pay for a quick trip to Singapore, or for the mass expert consulting that gives serial TV dramas like E.R. and NYPD Blue their veneer of authenticity.” Viewed as an enemy combatant, television competes directly with novels for eyes, attention, and dollars. Franzen’s essay ends on a hopeful note for books, but the assumption remains that TV and other forms of media will win away the majority of readers. Literature gets the consolation prize of mattering to an important few. The Franzen of 2011 had a very different perspective when speaking with David Remnick at The New Yorker Festival. Describing his involvement with the HBO series based on his book, he excitedly insisted, “We had an opportunity here -- because it’s not a miniseries, it’s an actual series -- I think to do something that has not been done.” I don’t assume that an individual’s intellectual positions have to remain consistent over a lifetime, but this marks a pretty significant shift -- and one that characterizes what seems to be a growing number of writers. TV no longer stands as the primary enemy of fiction, as long one can write for the right kind of TV. Or: getting a contract with folks like HBO has become the new ideal. What’s changed? For one thing, the rise of premium cable has produced practical advantages for authors. Higher production values and an emphasis on multi-year serial dramas allow for financial security, giving them an incentive to stay involved with television projects. Moreover, HBO has demonstrated a willingness to allow novelists to maintain control of their work, offering folks like Franzen (and Egan, who turned down the opportunity) the opportunity to write the scripts. And perhaps most importantly, the popularity of shows like Mad Men, The Wire, and Homeland -- all of which find a place in what Fehrman rightly dubs “post-Sopranos” cable -- enables producers to make compelling cases for slower, unfolding, deliberate narratives. Slower, unfolding, and deliberate narratives comprise the bread and butter of literary fiction. Perhaps television audience tastes have simply come in line with the tastes of readers, while new content-delivery preferences make it possible to exploit the similarity. Tivo and OnDemand everything allow viewers to string together episodes of series on their own schedules -- to cater their media consumption to individual attention spans. But especially interesting about Franzen’s position with regard to the series is his insistence that TV has allowed him more creative room to explore the themes of The Corrections than did the novel itself. In the same conversation with Remnick, he explains: Because we had so much more time to work with than there was material in the novel, it was an opportunity to tell a story at many different points in time -- that is spread over thirty years -- and have those all have equal weights […] To figure out how to make that work, it seemed like it could be really cool. By his account, it turns out that television will present freedom to explore plotlines that the novel limited or foreclosed. For the reigning king of American realist fiction to confess this point -- and to do it readily -- marks a sharp change of direction, suggesting that perhaps we need to start thinking differently about the relationship between television and fiction. I don’t mean to make hasty qualitative or hierarchical distinctions between TV and novels. It’s easy to say indignantly “Novels are better than TV, you sell-out jerks!” like a petulant writer with exactly zero novels to his credit. (I’m working on it, OKAY?) But I don’t think anyone should begrudge writers like Egan or Franzen for working with HBO. At the very least, Franzen sounds a lot happier than he did 15 years ago, and the fact that The Corrections will reach millions more potential readers on HBO (and on DVD) sounds like an unmitigated win for literary fiction. Nevertheless, we do need to think about the implications of suggesting that television’s aesthetic capacities can complement, or even supplant, those of novels. For once, we might not have to ask, “Will the novel survive?” Instead, we need to ask what it means that the novel’s future depends on a relationship with TV -- and whether this relationship will be a productive one in the long run. I started thinking about all of this when it suddenly became possible that The Corrections would be filmed at the house where I grew up. 3. For young(ish) writers, reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections has for a long time seemed like a kind of prerequisite to engaging in literary practice: writing, reading, thinking about novels and their future or lack of future, or whatever else. When I was in college, the book seemed a kind of talismanic object, a guidebook, a blueprint to follow if I ever wanted to write serious fiction. At the same time, 18-year-old A-J secretly worried that Franzen’s depiction of American middle-class despair and loneliness, and the concurrent self-torture about the shallowness of this despair and loneliness, obviated the need for anything I would ever come up with to describe same. (It’s possible 18-year-old A-J should have been worried about other things, sure, but this is how the story goes). Regardless, my copy of The Corrections bears the scars of obsessive, borderline psychotic reading: highlights and underlined passages; exclamation points and YESes; check marks and squiggles (most of which have no significance to me now). As an overzealous (and, it can’t be overemphasized, really obnoxious) undergraduate I wrote a chapter of my rambling 120-page thesis (a ponderous object titled “Realistically Speaking: The Politics of the Contemporary Realist Novel”) on Franzen’s work. I also bought a copy of The Corrections for my father one Christmas and distinctly remember telling the family it was my favorite book. I later found it on a bookcase in our living room, wedged between How to Clean Practically Anything and The Bible for Dummies, its spine un-cracked. I started giving my mother a précis of this personal literary history, but she cut me off and asked whether she should call HBO. She added that they offered anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000 for every day they were filming. My response was something along the lines of: “YOU HAVE TO TELL THEM THAT YOU WILL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO FILM THIS SHOW IN OUR HOUSE.” The fact that our house could play a central role in The Corrections validated a long-held suspicion that our Mount Vernon abode -- scene of my childhood -- had something quintessentially American about it. Its “ATTACHED GARAGE,” its magnolia tree and vegetable garden, its slate walk and bay windows could stand in for Franzen’s work. He may have written a book about such a house. But I lived in that house. [For anyone else keeping score, it’s Aronstein, unpaid freelance essayist and freshman writing teacher, 1 – Franzen, National Book Award-winning author and American literary icon, 0]. I excitedly wondered how HBO would transform my parents’ home into that of the Lamberts, the family at the heart of The Corrections. Some rooms wouldn’t need any modification at all. For example, our garage seemed ready-made for Lambert patriarch Alfred’s metallurgical lab. The production designer wouldn’t have to move anything. The boxes marked “For Yard Sale” and the 1960s-era rocking horse, the Tupperware containers packed with quilts, and the workbench populated with dusty shot glasses all fit almost too perfectly with Franzen’s vision. Then again, how would this transformation (or lack of transformation) warp my own reading of the book? And more unnervingly, how would the depiction of my childhood home on screen, written into the scripted version of a novel I’ve read at least four times, change the way I remembered and wanted to write about my own experiences? The translation of this particular novel to the screen seemed to have more personal ramifications than those of a general conversation about the relationship between cable and novels. It had to do with my own source material for fiction -- and the potential consequences of seeing what Franzen would do with the scene of my childhood. And that idea weirded me out. 4. The formal challenge of novels has always been to represent human experience in a way that attempts to transcend limitations of language: to create something like a shared consciousness among readers of a common text. That this shared consciousness takes place entirely in the realm of thought grants fiction its unique identity, distinguishing it from visual forms of media. What a novel leaves unsaid is often as important as what it does say, and for this reason a piece of fiction’s textual construction of narrative requires a lot of mental work on the part of authors and readers. It has less to do with the scope of a novel’s plot, and more to do with the depth of its inquiry into consciousness. When we read, we take a mental inventory of the objects and people that inhabit our world and map them onto whatever the author offers us. No matter how meticulously an author creates an environment from words, we still find ourselves spending part of our time with a book trying to match up our own life, possessions, sensations, ideologies, misunderstandings, and relationships with imagined plots, settings, and people. We have to imagine how the sunlight glints through the magnolia tree, how a mother’s voice shouting “MEATLOAF” resonates off of light fixtures, how the wallpaper peels off the walls, how the dog howls at shadows on the ceiling during dinner. Regardless of the size of the screen or the total length of the movie/series/miniseries, visual forms of representation take away this pressure (and pleasure). That is, in my reading of The Corrections, the Lamberts’ house has always felt and looked like my parents’ house. What can I say? The brain is sometimes lazy. It conjures approximations of Mr. Darcy, or Daisy Buchanan, or Chip Lambert based on people we know. We try to understand a novel in the vernacular of our own experience. Our relationships condition our mental, emotional, and psychological connection with characters. And when we say that literary fiction is “character-driven,” we mean this: our private interactions with texts depend as much on the associations and imagination of the author as on the associations and imaginations of the reader. Our desire to know them -- and to know them on our own terms -- drives us to read. Then again, once we see Viggo Mortensen playing Aragorn at Helm’s Deep, it’s difficult to imagine him any other way. Once Rooney Mara walks into the frame as Lisbeth Salander, all we can do is hem and haw about how her interpretation of the character either matches up with or fails to meet expectations that have been molded by books. And I worry that once Ewan McGregor puts on a midwestern accent and a pair of leather pants, I won’t be able to imagine myself as Chip Lambert ever again. Movies and television shows have the uncanny ability to restructure the way that we read novels because they gives us definitive answers about how to see them. When we say that movies fail to live up to expectations created by novels, it’s not just because they don’t comport with our individual imaginings of how the world of a novel is supposed to look. It’s because they rob us of the sense that we have a claim to a private interpretation. Or more simply: even if I had always imagined our house standing in for the Lamberts’ house, I didn’t want the television to tell me that our house had to be the Lamberts’ house. What makes novels unique when compared with television has little to do with having enough room to explore certain plotlines in a more detail. What distinguishes them from (even the best, most tasteful, best-acted and directed) television arises from the form of textual engagement itself. Serial dramas on premium cable might in some ways be able to increase the size of the canvas available to fiction writers, and certainly expand the reach of their work. They might demand more mental work than forms like the sitcom. But a novel like The Corrections can seem limitless to readers precisely because it leaves meanings open, leaves parts of characters’ lives only implicitly explored, allows readers to fill in the blanks. It’s these blanks that I’m worried The Corrections on HBO will fill in. 5. A representative from HBO came to my parents’ place. After walking around for about 30 minutes, he told them that the house was the right period, but likely too small. To film the scenes properly, they would need a lot more room for the cameras and crew. It was likely the kind of house that they wanted, but they couldn’t film it effectively. And, I think, it’s just as well. I’d like to write about that house one day. Photo courtesy the author.
The author and musician Alina Simone published her first collection of essays, You Must Go And Win, this past June. Unlike most writers who toil in obscurity before landing an agent, Simone’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Eric Chinski, found Simone on Pandora.com, a free, personalized Internet radio service. After Chinski listened to Simone’s songs, he contacted her to propose that she write a book. “It seemed like he already viewed music and literature as part of one continuum,” Simone says. “Certainly, the best songs out there read like the best poems or short stories.” Of late, publishers and authors have begun to experiment more with audio as a natural step in the promotion of their books. Listening to music has always been an organic piece of literary consumption -- anyone who has queued up a favorite record of sad ballads while reading a heartbreaking novel, in order to up the emotional catharsis can attest to that. But recent trends suggest that readers are looking for even more direct ways to incorporate music into the reading experience. At readings for You Must Go And Win, Simone also performed her songs live, and since then, all of her appearances have morphed into music and literary mash-ups: She played live at benefits for the literary mentoring organization Girls Write Now, for Guernica Magazine, and at other writers’ book release parties, including Evan Hughes’ Literary Brooklyn, as well as the Brooklyn Book Festival this fall. When her book came out, Simone also contributed an author playlist to Largehearted Boy, a books and music blog run by David Gutowski. Since 2005, Largehearted Boy has run a beloved feature called Book Notes, for which recently published writers are asked to create a playlist for their novels; their song selections are explained in the context of both the writing experience as well as the characters in the story. Gutowski recently posted the 900th entry in the series, and has also started a Largehearted Lit series at WORD bookstore in Greenpoint, dedicated to authors who participated in Book Notes, plus musical guests. “There has definitely been a rise in author soundtracks as promotional items in a variety of formats,” says Gutowski. “From my experience, music is a great way to create a unique bond between writer and reader.” A number of authors have told Gutowski that writing the playlist essays are one of the most enjoyable pieces of promotion attached to their book tour. New Yorker editor Ben Greenman contributed two playlists to Largehearted Boy, timed to the release of his books. In the essay that accompanied the playlist for his short story collection A Circle Is A Balloon and Compass Both, Greenman wrote, “When I write, I don’t really listen to words with lyrics -- too distracting -- but many songs are in my mind, and as soon as I’m done writing, I run off and listen to them.” Greenman says that for him, the playlists are a way to amplify some of the themes in his books. “There were songs about romantic confusion or betrayal that were on a loop in my head as I wrote: Graham Parker songs, in particular, or Lou Reed songs,” he said of Circle. “It’s not that those songs helped me make the stories, but they helped me isolate the emotions that in turn helped me make the stories.” The novelist and essayist Corinna Clendenen is familiar with that line of thinking; it’s part of what led to her decision to write Double Time, a love story following a Dani and Dylan, twin sisters who are obsessed with music and choose to make it a powerful agent of change in their lives. Double Time came out on Audible.com in September as an audio book -- it has no printed form as of now. Songs punctuate the book’s 44 chapters, and Clendenen selected each track to underscore the unfolding events of the novel. Among them are Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma,” Matt Costa’s “Vienna” and “Not Your Lover Anymore” by Blitzen Trapper. “The blending of story and song was something that developed organically as I was writing the book,” says Clenenden. “Early in the writing process, I started hearing songs in my head and putting their lyrics into chapter openings.” What began as a curiosity morphed into the notion that the songs she was listening to and connecting to the character of Dylan, a rising indie musician, could actually be incorporated in the book itself. Acquiring the copyrights involved clearing permissions with the artists involved, as well as the recording studios and occasionally the publisher. Clendenen also established an annual grant to an indie musician after Double Time has been available for sale for a year; the funds will be awarded to a band or artist in the form of five percent of the net proceeds from the novel. While Audible.com senior editor Matthew Thornton notes that audio is becoming a bigger part of literary consumption for readers thanks to audiobooks, he explains that books like Double Time are still a rarity. “We think it’s wonderful that authors are experimenting with creative ways to enhance listeners’ experiences of their audiobooks, not only with music but with different kinds of narration,” Thornton says. “But the weaving together of music and text is still relatively unusual.” By contrast, Richard Nash is the vice president of content and community at Small Demons (and formerly the publisher of Soft Skull Press), a site that catalogs endless cultural references found in books, from music and movies to people and objects. He sees incorporating audio and other cultural reference points as a way to allow readers to truly live inside a novel. “David Gutowski made it interesting and fun and gratifying,” Nash says of how Largehearted Boy weaves music and literature together via the Book Notes playlists. “But music is but one piece of a larger puzzle,” Nash says. “That being, how do we connect books to the daily elements of everyone’s cultural lives, to music, yes, but also to movies, to restaurants, to landmarks, to drinks.” As the Small Demons database expands, authors will be able to add greater context to the details pulled out by the site, and users will be able to find links between the references in their favorite books. Nash says readers will also be able to listen to the music that the author heard while writing. “You might choose to listen as you’re reading, or as you traverse a path taken by the protagonist as she listens to that music. Or you might stop reading, and close your eyes,” he says. Another service, Booktrack, demands that the reader listen to a preselected soundtrack while they read something on an iPad or tablet: As you work your way through the story, the app matches music to various plot points to create what vice president of publishing Brooke Geahan calls an “immersive” experience that audio playlists don’t necessarily take far enough, particularly “when the music and mood do not match up.” But on Spotify, a new digital music service that offers access to an enormous library of songs available both on PC and smart phones, both casual users and publishing companies have began to crank out playlists for books and authors. Mediabistro’s GalleyCat blog created a playlist in homage to Haruki Murakami, it offers a compilation of songs mentioned in his novels South of the Border, West of the Sun, Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. And publishers like Knopf are working directly with their authors to create custom playlists that readers can spin while they read; Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead are among the participating writers. If you’re reading (or re-reading) the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad with Egan’s Spotify mix, you’ll be listening to Death Cab for Cutie, Massive Attack and The Who. In the U.K., Spotify has worked directly with publishers to support forthcoming book launches, including James Corden’s autobiography and a book based on the television series The Inbetweeners. Still, despite the ease with which music and literature has intersected for her book, Simone suggests that the crossover often gives readers more insight into the author rather than the text, which is still a bonus for obsessive fans. “The key is keeping the quality high,” she says. She and Greenman, as authors, both worry about the promotional static diluting the value and impact of the book. “In the end, books are books, and albums are albums,” Greenman says. “They’re cooked differently, served different, and eaten differently.” Image credit: Flickr/Michael Casey
“There are so many books. Always so many. They collide in my mind.” - Colum McCann Another Year in Reading is behind us, and I speak for all of us at The Millions when I sincerely thank everyone who wrote, shared, and read our articles. It’s a bit daunting to let strangers into our private reading worlds, but it’s also quite rewarding. There is always the temptation to dive into a new book just after finishing another. There are, as Colum McCann says above, just “so many books” we’ve yet to read. However it’s also true that reflection can deepen appreciation: your reading timeline becomes contextualized, and its connections develop like a filmstrip in your mind. Our series, in the end, is all about such reflection. We also recognize that it’s becoming easier than ever to rely on algorithms and lists for one’s book recommendations – and while there are some treasures to be found through such means, there is nothing quite like the warmth of an actual human being’s testimony to vouchsafe your next reading choice. We hope that these articles have turned you on to new writers – authors of books selected by others, or authors of the articles themselves. With 72 participants naming 214 books, it’s safe to say this has been our biggest and most high profile Year in Reading yet. Our participants included the current Poet Laureate, a longtime candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, the reigning winners of the IMPAC and Pulitzer Prizes, two authors of books named The New York Times’ 10 Best of 2011, a recent inductee to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and more Pushcart winners than I care to count. A number of authors wrote their own Year in Reading articles as well as books chosen later on in the series. This honor roll consists of McCann, Jennifer Egan, Daniel Orozco, David Vann, Siddhartha Deb, and Geoff Dyer. Yet in spite of these credentials – impressive as they are – I thought it would be fun to note some statistics, and to award some further superlatives based upon the articles written for this series. (Note that all research is highly unscientific.) By the numbers: of the 214 books named, 139 were fiction, 68 were nonfiction, 5 were poetry, and 2 were graphic novels. The average length of the books chosen was 338 pages, and the average publication year was 1994. The oldest book selected was Moby-Dick, the longest was Bleak House, and the shortest was Buckdancer’s Choice. If you’re a fan of our Post-40 Bloomers series, you’ll appreciate the fact that the average age of each book’s author, at the time their book was originally published, was 47.53 years old. Most of the books were from the United States and the UK, but many were from Ireland, Canada, France, the Russian Federation, Hungary, and Germany. Six of the seven continents were represented, and these books were published by presses ranging from the New York Review of Books to New Directions to Fantagraphics to Random House. (I won’t release the name of which house published the highest number of selections because I don’t want war to break out in New York City.) Some favorites from the series, based on feedback from readers and links, comments, and other stats, included McCann on The Book of Disquiet, Jonathan Safran Foer on The Shallows, Ben Marcus on Nothing, Michael Schaub on The Great Frustration, and Egan on Butterfly’s Child. Three books tied for the most popular selection this year: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams (selected by Dan Kois, David Bezmozgis, and Adam Ross), Edouard Levé’s Suicide (selected by Scott Esposito, Mark O’Connell, and Dennis Cooper), and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (selected by Charles Baxter, Kevin Hartnett, and Garth Risk Hallberg). Seven more books tied for second-most popular: Phillip Connors’ Fire Season (selected by Chad Harbach and yours truly), Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? (selected by Harbach and Emily Keeler), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (selected by Brooke Hauser and A.N. Devers), Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (selected by Hauser and Rosecrans Baldwin), Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test (selected by Schaub and Chris Baio), Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal (selected by Hauser and Rachel Syme) and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (selected by Scott and Garth). Still I am compelled to award a couple of half-serious superlatives to close this thing out: The “Gashlycrumb Tinies” Award for Saddest Selection of Books goes to Emma Straub for her tear-soaked article. “Mr. Consistent” is an Award I’d like to bestow upon Brad Listi, who exhausted the Sarah Palin canon only to then go on to exhaust the David Markson one. “Most Indecisive” belongs to Brooke Hauser and her 15 selections, while “Most Topical” goes to Michael Schaub because 90% of his list published in 2011. The Award for Coolest Byline undoubtedly goes to Duff McKagan, but the Award for Coolest Backstory (as well as my unending jealousy) goes to Benjamin Hale. Finally, the Award for Most Valuable Participant goes to you, dear reader, for allowing us to continue our series and for helping it grow with each passing January. Until next year, happy reading. All best, The Millions staff P.S. If you’re curious as to how we put the series together, please do check out Electric Literature’s interview with our founder, C. Max Magee. The series, the articles, and the site itself would not be possible without him.
I started my first-ever vegetable garden this year at a small cottage my husband and I are fixing up an hour and a half outside New York City. I had no idea what I was doing and the anxiety of inexperience led me to nearly replace my habitual novel and short-story reading with a compost heap of gardening and how-to books. Here’s what I learned: I am on trend. The marketplace is soggy with pretty guides for beginners by green-thumb gurus and back-to-the-land life stylists. And the books are so pretty! I bought and read a lot of these books as if they contained the secret map to finding the secret garden. But, to be honest, I still can’t say I know much about growing food. And though I made some salads, my garden is not aesthetically pleasing. This is just to say, that a lot of these books are heavy on the glossy photographs and inconsistent on advice. I learned from these books that the way you learn to garden is to try and fail at gardening. I was great at Japanese eggplant, not so great with heirloom tomatoes. I smothered the broccoli by planting the cucumber too close, but I grew lovely peppers. Not a single garden book warned me about the aggressive, almost pernicious, nature of the cucumber. I did find one book more straightforward and informative than the rest. Brett L. Markham’s Mini-Gardening: Self-Sufficiency on a ¼ Acre. It’s the book I will look at again next year. It’s more of a basic agriculture book than a plant-this-vegetable-next-to-that-vegetable book. Besides gardening, most of my 2011 reading was research focused. I had my nose buried in Edgar Allan Poe and Poe-related scholarship for a book I’m working on, all the research is stuff that’s been around, except for Mat Johnson’s excellent novel Pym. Pym takes a depressingly hilarious look at race in America by following an African-American scholar who is fixated on Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, on a wild-Poe chase to Antarctica. I do want to mention one book that had nothing to do with my laughable attempts at agriculture or my Poe studies, and that’s Edmund De Waal’s memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes. De Waal is a world-famous ceramicist who inherited a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke from his great uncle Iggie. He becomes fixated on uncovering the story behind the delicate wood and ivory carvings and determines to trace their history through his family. His research leads him back several centuries and ends up taking the reader on an introspective, tragic, and ultimately romantic journey through many eras, wars, and the Holocaust. Along the way his family ancestors rub shoulders and make appearances in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, in a painting by Renoir, and in the work of other artist intelligentsia from the Belle Époque. It’s a remarkable secret history discovered through De Waal’s love of objects. I was swept away by this book and that just doesn’t happen as often as I’d like it to these days. While writing this I also realized that 2011 was the rare year for me where I read more non-fiction than fiction. And by rare, I probably mean that it was a unique event in my life. It was unsettling. My favorite novel I read this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. (I know, I know. It came out a while ago, and everyone loves it, and the Pulitzer). I found the book to be breathtaking and also unsettling – particularly Egan’s global warming future forecasting – perhaps this aspect of Goon Squad also encouraged my decision to start growing food. So I guess this year in reading taught me that I need more goon squads and less green thumbs in my life. I’m just no good without a good story. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
“Why do we read?” That was the journal prompt given one day to seniors at the International High School at Prospect Heights, a Brooklyn public school that teaches English to newly arrived immigrants and refugees from around the world. I spent a year at the school reporting my first book, The New Kids. During that time I heard many, many journal prompts, but this one made a lasting impression, in part because of one student’s answer. “We read to survive in the world,” wrote Hasanatu, who had grown up in Sierra Leone during the war, “because when we know how to read, we can have gob.” Hasanatu had learned how to read only recently, around the same time that she learned how to write. Sometimes she read for fun — she liked Superfudge by Judy Blume — but reading had a more practical purpose, too. She read to learn English, to sharpen her language and communication skills, to propel her forward toward college, and, yes, toward a good job. She also read to find answers to pressing questions. For instance, she wanted to know why it seemed that only African Muslims practice female circumcision? She spent days in the library investigating. For me, the question “What are you reading” inevitably leads to the question, “Why do we read?” This year, I’ve been reading mostly for entertainment and escape — more like I used to read as a kid. In past years, I’ve found myself reading books on a theme, usually related to whatever I’m working on at the moment. Before writing The New Kids, I read and revisited books about the immigrant/outsider experience: What Is the What and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, Outcasts United by Warren St. John, and Call It Sleep by Henry Roth. (I wrote about a few of those books here.) If I had known about The Gangster We Are All Looking For, Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s slim and elegant novel about a young girl who washes ashore in San Diego after fleeing Vietnam with her father by boat, I would have read it before writing my own book. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t know about it — I was able to read it without taking endless mental notes. I was pleased to discover that the author has a connection to western Massachusetts (where I recently moved with my husband), also home to Tracy Kidder, whose book Home Town gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of Northampton. Leaving New York City helped rekindle my interest in books about my former home, which I sometimes miss. I loved Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, not just for its memorable characters and pervasive sense of nostalgia, but for Egan’s wonderful inventiveness with language. I also ate up Amy Sohn’s bitchy Prospect Park West — especially the parts where she imagines dialogue for the “character” of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who works at the Park Slope Food Coop. On the subject of Park Slope, I finally got to read the works of some of my friends from the neighborhood’s own Brooklyn Writers Space. Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal is a cookbook written as a collection of pithy essays, in the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. Bryan Charles’ memoir, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, is about his first few years living in New York City, where he worked in a cubicle on the seventieth floor of the World Trade Center up until and on the day of 9/11. Michael Chabon described the book as “a sneakily disturbing, disarmingly profound, casually devastating memoir, taut and adept, that cracked me up even at its saddest moments.” I think he nailed it. Speaking of Chabon, I finally read Wonder Boys, which has one of the best last lines of any book that I can remember. I also read Emma Donoghue’s Room, which ruined a recent family weekend vacation (I wouldn’t talk to anyone until I finished), and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, another creepy book. This one is a young-adult novel — featuring some beautifully haunting vintage photos — about an abandoned orphanage filled with some very weird kids. Last but not least, I revisited a few old favorites, including Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, the first western I ever read, and Black Hole, the first graphic novel I ever read. The former is an epic adventure about a couple of aging Texas cowboys who embark on a perilous journey to settle amid the wilderness of Montana. The latter is a grotesque modern fable about a bunch of teenagers in 1970s Seattle, where a sexually transmitted “bug” is causing some horrific mutations among the locals. Two titles you wouldn’t find side-by-side on most bookshelves, but I see a connection. As Hasanatu said, we read to survive in the world, but sometimes we just like reading about survival. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I feel woefully inadequate as a reader, particularly with regard to keeping up with contemporary writers. Most of my colleagues keep up nicely. They’ll chat me up about a recent great story or essay in The New Yorker. They’ll ask what I thought of A Visit from the Goon Squad or Freedom. They’ve already read A Visit from the Goon Squad and Freedom. Those books just came out, didn’t they? And Freedom is big, and The New Yorker comes every week. Am I that terribly busy, more so than any other writer who also teaches for a living? I don’t think I am. Plus, I have all summer to write and read. Why aren’t I keeping up over the summer? I don’t know! I do own Goon Squad and Freedom, by the way; they’re in my to-read cart, along with books by Edward P. Jones and Francine Prose and Deborah Eisenberg, and biographies of Wharton and Frost. And a John McPhee book. And Volt by Alan Heathcock. (I’m name-dropping now, compensating for my inadequacy as a reader by trying to convince you that I do read (or at least, earnestly intend to; there are 63 books in that goddamn to-read cart)). Anyhow, the book I most recently plucked from the cart was Thom Jones’ first story collection, The Pugilist at Rest. This is a re-visitation of Jones for me, having read his work in various magazines and anthologies — back in the day, when I kept up — and remembering...well, frankly, not liking it. I re-visit because it has happened — again and again — that a writer whose work I remember not liking becomes, upon re-reading, a writer I enjoy and admire very much. (This has happened with Alice Munro, Henry James, Nicholson Baker, William Gibson, Carol Bly.) What I remember about not liking Jones had something to do with the hopped up, motor-mouth narration of the few stories I’d read. Well, The Pugilist at Rest is an entire collection of hopped up, motor-mouth narrations, and the effect of reading all eleven stories was very emotional for me. There is an urgency and a need in this aggregate voice that feels palpably human, and vulnerable. Some of his narrators are deluded, arrogant assholes, but man, do they try (and fail) not to be — talking their way through their story, telling it and confessing it and laying it all out (trying to!) no matter how awful it makes them look. What is remarkable to me in reading these stories is the sense of this voice haranguing and hauling me into the fictional world. I’ve never felt more present as an audience while reading a book, never more fully engaged in the mysterious exchange that can occur between reader and writer — I’m being somehow appealed to, in the most intrusive and nakedly honest away. A story is just words on a page, and for a writer to extract such an emotional response from a reader via his arrangement of words on a page — that’s a very great writer. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
If you're like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people. And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the "best" book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don't). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer's bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages. With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one. As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 "Year in Reading" contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader. Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet. Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints. Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin. Nick Moran, The Millions intern. Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate. John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass. Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions. Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org. Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley's Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading. Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way. Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. Geoff Dyer, author of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding. Deborah Eisenberg, author of Collected Stories. Duff McKagan, author of It's So Easy: And Other Lies, former bassist for Guns N' Roses. Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Amy Waldman, author of The Submission. Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World. Emma Straub, author of Other People We Married. Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen. Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States. Mayim Bialik, actress, author of Beyond the Sling. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The Walkmen. Chris Baio, bassist for Vampire Weekend. Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions. Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There. Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer at the LA Times. Mark O'Connell, staff writer at The Millions. Emily M. Keeler, Tumblrer at The Millions, books editor at The New Inquiry. Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, author of If You're Not Yet Like Me. Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season. Dennis Cooper, author of The Marbled Swarm. Alex Ross, author of Listen to This, New Yorker music critic. Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood. Yaşar Kemal, author of They Burn the Thistles. Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India. David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California. Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric. Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories. Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper's Lament. Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown. Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium. Denise Mina, author of The End of the Wasp Season. Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. Parul Sehgal, books editor at NPR.org. Patrick Brown, staff writer at The Millions. Jacob Lambert, freelance writer, columnist, contributor to The Millions. Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal, staff writer at The Millions. Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions. Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, staff writer at The Millions. Jeff Martin, author of The Late American Novel. Jane Alison, author of The Sisters Antipodes. Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case. Nuruddin Farah, author of Crossbones. Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Third Reich. Jean-Christophe Vatlat, author of Aurorarama. Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination. Brooke Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens. Belinda McKeon, author of Solace. Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire. Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast. A.N. Devers, editor of Writers' Houses. Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings. Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls. Rachel Syme, NPR contributor. A Year in Reading Wrap Up Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr. Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee
Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia. –Zadie Smith, "This is how it feels to me," in The Guardian, October 13, 2001. If you want to read the Greatest Work of 9/11 Literature, the consensus is: keep waiting. It will be a long time before someone writes it. We don’t know what it will look like. It could be the Moby Dick of the Twenty-First Century, or maybe a new Gatsby, but more likely it will be neither. Maybe it won’t be a novel at all. It could be a sweeping history (maybe) of New York at the turn of the Millennium and of America on the precipice of total economic implosion (or not). We will read it on our iPad34 (or maybe by then Amazon will beam narratives directly into our brain for $1.99). One thing that seems certain is that no one has yet written that book. Not DeLillo (too sterile), Safran Foer (too cloying), Hamid (too severe), Messud (too prissy), O’Neill (too realist), Spiegelman (too panicked), Eisenberg (too cryptic) or the 9/11 Commission (too thorough). The idea is that it will take time to determine what — if any — single piece of literature best captures the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. We can name any number of reasons why authors seem to have underwhelmed us during the past decade. Perhaps they suffered from an extended period of crippling fear of the kind Zadie Smith described just weeks after the attacks. Literary production can tend to feel superfluous in the aftermath of large loss of life. Or perhaps it’s our persistent closeness to the events. We’re still only a decade out, despite the sense that we’ve been waiting in airport security lines for an eternity. (By comparison, Heller wrote Catch-22 almost 20 years after Pearl Harbor; War and Peace wasn’t finished until 50 years after France’s invasion of Russia; and I think the jury may still be out on who wrote the definitive work on Vietnam). We can’t blame earnest authors for trying. It just wasn’t long enough ago yet. None of this stops critics from trying to figure out the best 9/11 book so far. We gather books about 9/11 (and some would go as far as to make the hyperbolic-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek claim “they’re all post-9/11 books now”) into a single pile and determine who has best distilled the essence of terrorism’s various traumatic effects on our national psyche and our ordinary life. On one hand, it seems plausible to blame this tic on our collective reduced attention spans and expectations for rapid literary responses to cultural and historical events. Or more simply: we want our book and we want it now. On the other hand, the imperative to produce a 9/11 book became a kind of authorly compulsion — a new way to justify the craft of writing to an audience whose numbers always seem to be inexorably marching toward zero. Amid conversations about “the death of the novel” (and we often fail to remember that these discussions were robust and ominous-sounding back in 2001 too), 9/11 provided a renewed opportunity for books to become culturally relevant. Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction — the whole lot. Any literary rendering of the post-9/11 world would be preferable to the unmediated reality of it. Or more simply: writers could come to the rescue of a traumatized public. Or even more simply: why shouldn’t it have been writing that could have soothed us and given us some kind of answers? Whether these considerations will eventually vindicate the authors who tried to translate 9/11 into literature just a few raw years after the fact, we can’t say. My contention is simply that, for now, they shouldn’t be so universally panned for trying. In the meantime, perhaps this decade anniversary isn’t an opportunity to determine who’s written the best book so far, but rather to reconsider accepted notions about what constitutes the Literature of 9/11 in the first place. The books we have written and read since 2001 tell us more about ourselves than about the capacity of literature to encompass the consequences of an event like these terrorist attacks. Rather than rank these books, we should fit them into categories that allow us to consider why we turn to literature in the aftermath of a traumatic event. We can more usefully ask ourselves “Why read?” and think about why this particular historical moment produced such a rapid and rapidly evolving body of literature. Here are some ideas to help get this conversation started. I don’t intend these bullet point-style assertions to be a decisive argument. Rather, I guess I’m just trying to figure out a way to group and regroup the books that have been on our collective radar for the past ten years. 1. To understand the post-9/11 world, we should look to the literature of the last moments before September 11, 2001. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001. Concerned with biotech, the dot-com crash, and the erosion of middle class family life in millennial America, Franzen’s novel captures a vague sense of menace in the days immediately before 9/11. And, though she has become better known for A Visit from the Goon Squad (which mentions the World Trade Center, only briefly) Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me proves that fiction can often seem to predict the world just ahead of us. The events of the novel so uncannily represent the shadow presence of terrorism in the unseen spaces of American everyday life that Egan, who wrote the book entirely before 9/11, included an afterward to the novel in 2002. She writes: “Had Look at Me been a work-in-progress last fall, I would have had to receive the novel in light of what happened. Instead, it remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time.” This last line has always been problematic for me. Were we really that innocent before 9/11? Authors seemed totally capable of exposing the dread underlying the exuberance (rational or otherwise) at the close of the Millennium. I wonder to whether we’ll remember the pre-9/11 years as one of innocence or willful ignorance. 2. There is no single body of 9/11 Literature. As I have mentioned, the tendency in the past decade has been to lump together all works of fiction about 9/11. As the number of works that deal directly and indirectly with the terrorist attacks has ballooned, the moniker “9/11 Literature” has become a dull catchall term used to describe too many types of books. Instead, we can try to make some distinctions to figure out more precisely what different kinds of books have done, and stop trying to judge them all by the same criteria. It can be helpful, for example, to distinguish between 9/11 Literature and Post-9/11 Literature. Whereas Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man pivot around the events of September 11, books like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children suggest how the events and their effects can be pushed to the margins. Works of 9/11 Literature obsess about the intricate and far-reaching effects of 9/11 on the lives of characters, whereas Post-9/11 Literature emphasizes how individuals can move beyond the trauma of the attacks and allow ordinary life to resume its flow. 3. The literary response to 9/11 better helps us understand the longer-term psychological effects of terrorism on families, communities, and nations. Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close help us understand how the effects of cultural trauma reach into future generations. They explore how we are all implicated into broader narratives of belonging to national and cultural heritages. Spiegelman had to publish the serial version of his comics in Germany because squeamish newspapers in America believed that his critiques of the Bush Administration would be poorly received at home. Likewise, Safran Foer’s novel was frequently criticized as playing on themes of grief and loss that seemed too fresh. As time passes, these criticisms fall away, and what we’re left with is a more subtle understanding of how — in the immediate aftermath of a cultural trauma — we must try to recover as individuals. 4. The relationship between The 9/11 Commission Report and The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation stands as one of the most compelling pairs of books to emerge in the past ten years — and neither one of these is a novel. While I’d argue that no single works stands out as the definitive representation of the terrorist attacks, a reader could do no better to understand the attacks of September 11, 2001 than to devour the 9/11 Commission’s official report. To 9/11 truthers, it probably makes sense that the government would produce an eloquent and sophisticated rendering of the attacks, and the complicated histories of terrorism and American intelligence failures that led to them. But to the rest of us, it comes as a fascinating surprise — one that reveals the government’s investment in the production of a literary artifact of some serious depth and skilled sentence-making. The 9/11 Commission Report defies the expectation that a government document should be stodgy and defensive. Instead, it reveals — often in a tone that breaks its own rigid impartiality and becomes downright moving — the grating human oversights of regulators and the humanity of the terrorists themselves as they bumblingly tried to find a hiding place in America. When read alongside Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s adaptation of the report, the two works become a breathtaking and genre-bending account of 9/11. Together, they are proof that an event like 9/11 can actually produce new artistic forms. The effort to describe and understand — to probe and render aesthetically — gives rise to new ways of thinking about the world. These are not novels, but they certainly rise to the level of literature, no matter how one decides to define it. 5. It’s time to start re-thinking the place of 9/11 in the landscape of American literary production. It has become more apparent that 9/11 is moving to the background of our cultural consciousness. Its influence remains, but its effects have faded when compared to what seem like more pressing economic and political concerns. Books like Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes help us understand what this process of fading looks like. But to return to Franzen and Egan, no two books seem better suited to the moment after the post-9/11 moment than Freedom and A Visit from the Goon Squad. To understand how authors have begun to fill their blank screens with something other than images of the World Trade Center on fire, it’s hard to do better. Franzen tackles the Bush Administration while Egan projects into a future New York, in which the 9/11 memorial has become an old landmark in Lower Manhattan. Literature looks forward at the next moment — toward a space and time during which we will no longer use the term Post-9/11 to describe ourselves, if only because newer and more troubling problems will take its place. * * * I have left out many works and many ideas. Where are Joseph O’Neill and Ian McEwan? Where are Colum McCann and John Updike? I have left out (in the very last minute) Lorraine Adams, whose book Harbor absolutely changed the way I thought about post-9/11 America when I read it, even though it had little if anything to do with 9/11. All of this is just to say: the conversation should continue, and I think it will only get more interesting throughout the next decade. Image credit: WarmSleepy/Flickr
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2010/2011 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad unsurprisingly had a good showing with judges. Meanwhile, the IMPAC win puts Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin on our list, and the shortlist nod does the same for Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, P 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I'd been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an "illustrated fiction" into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with "the future of the book." In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and '70s "experimental" literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out - replete with color photography and typographic mayhem - Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I'd just published would never work on it. Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac's for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions: At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses.... [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest... In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the "provincial" Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for "sellout." (Not to mention - horrors - a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon - not with Field Guide, anyway. To "sell out," you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the "beautiful" book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce. Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are: Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book Step 1. Use Color The iPad and Barnes & Noble's NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet. As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn't it cool...in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould's Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it's good enough for a Nobelist, isn't it good enough for you? Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that "photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen" of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy ("glossy"?) magazine readers are apparently "flocking" to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it's worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we're seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it's the literary equivalent of abstract painting's retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations - as in Joe Meno's Demons in the Spring - or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams' Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader. Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle's remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski's House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel or William H. Gass' The Tunnel - difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass' lead in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there's white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler's There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It's available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don't think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds "the 'powerpoint' chapter...extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.") Step 4. Run With Scissors The opening story of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It's a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn't - and couldn't - exist. Step 5. Go Aleatory Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar's Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau's "A Story As You Like It." But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn't matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover's "deck of cards" story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates... Step 6. Put It In A Box Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, "pile of pages" aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can't be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney's, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman's archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition. Step 7. Pile on the End Matter This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren't palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren't you likely to hit "The End" and think: I'm done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I'm thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text. Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books: 1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object. 2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book...though, given the $35 cover price, I can't imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it. 3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I'll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov's and Jonathan Safran Foer's. There. I've done it. 4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel's conclusion rises...and falls. 5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen? 6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a "male version" and a (slightly different) "female version," bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon! 7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text - which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further - to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can't blame a guy for trying. 8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan "poetry machine" is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you'd just have to build in a "shuffle" function) - though by equivalence rather than reproduction. 9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I'd bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann's detractors would argue that's a good thing. I'm not so sure... 10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children's librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what's called a full-bleed)...and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book's explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen...but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can't, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad...perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.
“The Short Story is Not Dead.” This headline appeared in The Nervous Breakdown in January above an essay written by my friend Alex Chee in which he discussed the ways that technology was making the short story more accessible, and specifically, accessible on his iPhone. The assertion of the negative – not dead – seemed to me an odd way for the copy editor to introduce an article on good news for short story reading. I wondered what he meant by the possible ‘death’ of the story. I find that when someone asserts that a thing (the story), or an idea (God), is not dead, they usually mean that a nostalgic version of the thing has lapsed and not been replaced by something comparably satisfying. What has changed with the story? Not the writing. Short story writing is alive and well. The evidence: Three of five of the New York Times’ notable works of fiction in 2010 are short fiction collections (counting Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad). And consider all the print and online journals that survive on paid contest submissions, which is evidence of the large number of writers who aspire to be published authors. The human impulse to tell stories has not diminished. What then? Short story reading has declined. With few exceptions (The New Yorker is one), mass circulation general interest magazines no longer publish short stories. And, editors and agents blanche at the prospect of debut story collections, and often publish an author’s collection only with the promise of a follow-on novel. The popular wisdom – and commercial reality – is that story collections don’t sell. What to make of this conundrum? Is today’s short fiction not as good? Hardly. Why aren’t readers holding up their part of the bargain? The answer, let me suggest, is related to how readers are given the opportunity to read – distribution, in commercial terms. The short story became one of the great 20th century art forms when inexpensive publishing technology gave rise to mass market general interest magazines. Oral story telling is a deeply human tradition, but it was only with the blitzkrieg of 19th century mass publishing that the written short story became a specific art form. Magazines served up stories as snacks for readers, and did so with relish. The Saturday Evening Post, and other widely circulated magazines, provided outlets for stories by writers with now-household names, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, There were more than 25 mass market magazines in the 1920s and 1930s that published one short story each week. When Life magazine published Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in 1952, that issue sold 5.3 million copies. Stories in magazines could be read in one sitting. And, story collections became the publishing industry’s way to capitalize on already popular works when they were repackaged in compilations. Poe’s, Chekhov’s, Hawthorne’s, Gallant’s, Updike’s, and Cheever’s great stories all first appeared in periodicals. Only later in books. The decline in short story reading is, I suggest, linked to the precipitous decline in mass market magazine readership. Magazines’ sales decline began in during the 1960s when consumers shifted their entertainment and news interest to television, but the decline recently accelerated with the explosive growth of online and mobile real-time access to news and information. The story, which was popularized by new printing and distribution technologies, has slowly become a victim of the displacement of those technologies. To be sure, stories themselves also suffer from the crushing competition for consumer’s attention posed by TV, video games, and the Internet. But, without mass market distribution outlets, readers entertain themselves in other ways. Literary journals continue to publish stories, but they come out seasonally, or occasionally, and the months’ long gap between issues doesn’t serve a creature of time-worn habit, accustomed to weekly soap operas, weekly television dramas, or the weekly story in The New Yorker. Consumers like predictable engagement. There are hundreds of online literary journals that publish bi-weekly, or monthly. Many -- and there are a great many for readers to discover -- are better suited to launch new voices than to publish top authors. And the seductive distractions of Facebook and Twitter make literary reading on a computer a difficult act of will. What’s a reader to do? Technology gave rise to the flowering of the short story, contributed to its decline, and technology will, in my opinion, again solve the problem of connecting readers and stories. Like the song, the short story is perfectly suited for mobile consumption. The iPhone and iPad and other tablets are with their owner all the time, and a story on these devices can be read on a treadmill, in a bank line, on an airplane, wherever the user has a few minutes and wants to be transported to the magical place stories can create. Poe’s definition of the short story remains as true today as when he wrote it: “a story is a thing that can be read in one sitting.” If he were writing today he might rephrase it: “…in one hour on the tread mill.” So, how many Americans actually read short stories? How large is the market? There are no accurate answers to the question, but there are ways of approximating the number who read, which of course, is reduced by the fact that many people who might like to read stories don’t know where to find them. A few facts: 9 million adult Americans annually read more than 50 works of fiction (NEA study, 2008). 2 million adult American publish personal creative writing (NEA study, 2002; writers are usually also readers.) 1.1 million: the subscription rate base for The New Yorker in 2009 150,000: the graduates of creative writing MFA programs in the past 20 years (all of whom learn to write and read short stories). 50,000-100,000: the estimated annual sales of The Pushcart Prize collections of stories (my estimate). These population snapshots overlap, of course, but suggest that there are 500,000-to-1.5 million American adults who are frequent readers of short stories. Stories are meant to be read one at a time, savored individually, taken in, and reflected upon. Collections are ways of repackaging known works. Publishing executives today don’t expect collections to sell (because they haven’t in the past), so they aren’t marketed, and this cycle of low expectations and insufficient care creates a self-fulfilling outcome: collections don’t sell. Web connected devices, like the iPad and the iPhone, can connect readers of short fiction with the best writing in the market. Mobile and web technologies reduce friction in markets. Storytelling is a deep human need, and readers of stories are entertained and instructed by clever plots, sympathetic characters, and artful writing. Words create imaginary worlds that provide readers with an experience that is similar to, but different from, the worlds of movies and television. Technology provides a new way to connect story tellers and fans. We’re all ears. (Image: 732 - Power Grid - Pattern image from zooboing's photostream)
Last week, when it was announced that Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, I’m guessing I felt something like a football fan does when his team wins the Superbowl. I loved the book, pushing it hard on my bookish friends and even harder on the unbookish ones, certain that this was one of the most broadly appealing works of fiction to have come out in a long time. After the announcement, I wanted nothing more than to high-five all my Egan-loving friends posting the link on Facebook. It was heartening to see that the sentiment seemed widespread and magnanimous. Surely the celebration had to do with the brilliance of the book, but also the fact that a woman won in a year of several lively discussions regarding gender inequality in publishing (see the VIDA report on publication statistics and the backlash to Jonathan Franzen in general.) Alas, the feeling of deserved recognition was short-lived. In a Wall Street Journal interview that Egan gave shortly after receiving the news, her advice to young writers ruffled some feathers: My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at The Tiger’s Wife. There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?...My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower. The Harvard student Egan is referring to is Kaavya Viswanathan, whose novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was much lauded until it was discovered that large sections had been lifted from other books; among the plagiarized authors were Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries), Sophie Kinsella (Confessions of a Shopaholic) and Megan McCafferty (the Jessica Darling series), all of whom are best-selling authors of the “chick-lit” genre. Chief among the offended was the oft-outspoken author Jennifer Weiner (In Her Shoes), who was also a prominent voice of the aforementioned Franzen backlash. A tweet from Weiner shortly after the WSJ piece ran: “And there goes my chance to be happy that a lady won the big prize. Thanks, Jenny Egan. You're a model of graciousness.” Following Weiner’s lead, devout fans of chick-lit sounded off; over at The Frisky, in an essay titled “In Defense of Chick Lit,” Jamie Beckman, who opens her essay declaring that Egan was “one of her favorite authors of all time,” expresses doubt that she’ll ever recommend Egan’s work to a friend again. It’s not hard to see how Egan’s statements offended—“very derivative and banal” isn’t exactly timid diction, and it’s a real downer to have someone you respect make you feel like you’ve got bad taste. But before anyone accuses anyone of “step[ping] on other women as [she] makes [her] way to the podium,” as Beckman puts it, we should consider a couple of things. First: the offended parties lay claim to a genre ubiquitously referred to as “chick-lit”, a term used to describe fiction that relays, as Beckman puts it, “thoughtful, funny, relatable voices for the everywoman who’s looking for her personal pieces of life’s pie, including the career, the apartment, and the guy.” I don’t aim to scrutinize the content of the genre so much as the fact that the chick lit demographic has fully embraced the term. Ladies, it’s 2011. Who refers to women as “chicks” aside from Ed Hardy-wearing man-children? Uninspired as it may be, detractors calling the work “fluffy” can’t really be blamed—it’s built into the name, for god's sake. It’s difficult to move forward in an argument about the sexist climate in publishing when a group that is supposedly trying to push for more equality has accepted and even defended a derogatory label. Granted, the term was probably coined by some marketing department somewhere, but authors of the genre stand by it unflinchingly (see Michele Gorman’s article in The Guardian). It’s no secret that the chick lit authors are outselling their literary fiction counterparts by far. What’s alarming is that the tremendous success of the genre is largely because it’s marketed to women who identify themselves “chicks.” Perhaps the bigger issue at hand, though, is the severity of the backlash to Egan’s comments and the reasoning behind it. Bloggers at the The Signature Thing declared it “majorly ugly girl-on-girl crime,” and numerous commenters declared a boycott of everything Egan from this point forward. Another blogger at NerdGirlTalking was utterly perplexed: “Jennifer Egan, have you even MET Meg?.. Because how could you meet Meg and then call her work banal or derivative? I don’t care if you think those things, Meg is so nice that saying those things are almost like kicking a puppy.” These former Egan fans are uniting under the notion that in addition to being a meanie, Egan is setting feminists back 50 years. How could she? In the male hegemony of publishing, us gals are supposed to stick together. Which is all well and good, in theory. But to suggest that a woman writer should not be critical of other women writers is counter to progress. It reminds me a little bit of the 2008 election. There was a certain kind of Hillary supporter that believed all women should be in support of our potential first woman president mostly on the basis that this could be our first woman president! Which is all well and good, in theory. But to express any sort of dissent guaranteed you a look of pity mingled with disgust: Poor thing. She must secretly hate her vagina. This kind of mindless unity is counterintuitive. What kind of feminist movement condones a suppression of opinion on the basis that we should all be nice and stick together, because we’re girls? What Egan said wasn’t nice. It was honest. It reflected her opinion of a certain type of fiction. Publishing should strive to be a meritocracy (though whether it succeeds is a whole other issue,) and Egan’s comments are an acknowledgment of that. On the other hand, in the chick lit realm, amid the outrage and demand for more respect, there is, in fact cowering: observe Weiner selling herself short (and acknowledging a literary hierarchy) in an interview she gave to the Huffington Post: “Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan "Genius" Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.” In 1971, Gore Vidal compared Norman Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex to “three days of menstrual flow.” Mailer then proceeded to head-butt Vidal before they appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, and six years later at a party, he threw his drink in Vidal’s face and started a fistfight. While I’m not suggesting that this is admirable behavior (though it is pretty funny,) it does nothing for leveling the playing field if every time a woman author remarks on the quality of a work of fiction, hysteria ensues, she’s thought of as a catty bitch, and there’s a concerted effort to rally the troops against her. In a year when a male author (Franzen), appeared on the cover of Time for the first time since the last male author (Stephen King,) appeared on the cover ten years ago, the significant success of Goon Squad shouldn’t be drowned out by bitterness because Egan encouraged young writers to aim higher than a genre whose very name degrades its creators. What we should be concerned about is that glaring inequities exist in publishing. So, ladies, one more time, in case you didn’t hear Egan over Weiner’s whining: shoot high and don’t cower. We can’t very well get much done with the kid gloves on.
This year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction has gone to Jennifer Egan's much praised A Visit from the Goon Squad. The win caps a year that saw this "novel in stories" go from a book anticipated by the literary set to becoming a prize winner and bestseller. Jonathan Dee and Chang-rae Lee are the runners up. Lee is a past winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, while Dee continues to receive critical notice as a novelist. Incidentally, this marks the third year in five that The Tournament of Books has predicted the Pulitzer result. The Road won both in 2007, as did The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008. Here are this year's Pulitzer winners and finalists with excerpts where available:Fiction:Winner: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - (excerpt, Egan's Year in Reading, The Millions profile of Egan)The Privileges by Jonathan Dee (excerpt, The Millions interview)The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee (excerpt)General Nonfiction:Winner: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee (excerpt)The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain by Nicholas Carr (excerpt, The Millions review)Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne (excerpt)History:Winner: The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner (excerpt)Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South by Stephanie McCurryEden on the Charles: The Making of Boston by Michael Rawson (excerpt)Biography:Winner: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (excerpt, The Presidential Biography Project)The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century by Alan Brinkley (excerpt)Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon by Michael O'BrienWinners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
The Tournament of Books declares a winner! It was down to two in the last round: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (called "big, messy, flawed, enraging, and engrossing" by C. Max Magee, one of the final round judges) and Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad (which "ached with feeling and tension...") Find out who won at The Morning News!
Another week of literary contests has whittled the Tournament of Books field down to four: Freedom, A Visit From the Goon Squad, Next, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Today, the team offers more analysis, previewing and recapping. Up next: the semis, the Zombie round, and the grand finale.
New this week is Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes (reviewed here) along with new story collections from E.L. Doctorow (All the Time in the World) and Jim Shepard (You Think That's Bad). Also new this week is Kate Atkinson's latest Jackson Brodie mystery Started Early, Took My Dog and Paul McEuen's debut mixing "science and suspense" Spiral. Out in paperback is Millions Hall of Famer A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.